Keith Wasserman started Good Works Inc. in 1981 when he and his wife welcomed the first guest of their ministry into their home in Athens, Ohio. Here Wasserman shares what he has learned over the past three decades about creating and sustaining an institution.

Know your community. I counseled a pastor recently who wanted to start something in their building and bring people to the building. I suggested he tell his people to get out and spend a whole year volunteering in the community. Get them out and see what the gaps are, where the needs aren’t being met, and see some of the innovation that’s already going on. Have those people get together and talk about what they’re learning and discovering. And then, in a year, ask the question, “What do we need to do that’s uniquely formed by us, that would be an expression of who we are in the community?” Don’t rush into anything.

Start small and build over time. Get small groups of people to start incrementally and build up rather than start monumentally and have to lay off people.

Get the right people. Our selection process is really careful. If someone wants to come and have a job here, they have to buy into the greater community, to the community values. We say, “Come for a week and hang out with us. And if you like us and we like you, then we’ll maybe set up a more formal interview.” But at first it’s very informal. It’s really about the people and the chemistry.

It’s important that every person in the organization understands the importance of character over skill. You could have great skills, but it won’t work if you’re not working on your character. You have to have a teachable heart. You have to be able to listen and take criticism from others. You have to be a team player in giving affirmation to others.

Don’t be grant-driven. Be relationship-driven. We have a lot of long-term supporters who believe in us and our mission and our values and have been financially committed. We don’t use a lot of techniques to raise money. We just build relationships and invite people to participate. Cultivating a solid financial base is really important.

Stay out of debt. For the most part, you can do things without going into debt. We’ve structured our projects to be volunteer-driven. There are a lot of people out there who genuinely want to do something for their neighbor. So people come and do things for the organization.

We’ve never bought toilet paper, paper towels or cleaning supplies. We’ve organized the ministry to be dependent on people who would give us those things.

Take time with decision making. We don’t try to make quick moves around here. The ship has gotten a little bit bigger, so we try to steer it more carefully.