For some, new enterprises are born out of job dissatisfaction or financial need. After my position was eliminated, I spent the better part of a year taking on nonprofit contracts and consulting jobs. I thought about starting my own business, but I wasn’t inspired by the prospects. In the midst of professional chaos, I was inspired by a mission and embarked on a personal journey as a volunteer with a nonprofit organization in its infancy.
But startup stories aren’t always charming tales of hard work and successful return, are they? My journey is a bit of a war story. This post is a personal account of my experience with a startup nonprofit, its “growing pains” and, ultimately, the end of my tenure as a member of the Board.
Note: I refrain from naming the organization intentionally in order to protect the integrity of its participants, Board members and funders.
Shortly after I lost my job, I met the founder of an organization whose mission surprised and inspired me. The founder had come up with a way to creatively meet two charitable needs in a surprisingly cost-effective manner. Identifying and meeting a need or needs is what entrepreneurship is all about, right? After a series of discussions around operational efficiency and sustainable fund sources, he invited me to meet the Board and a couple of participants and then asked me to consider joining their team.
I was voted onto the Board and dove headfirst into fundraising planning. It was almost year’s end and I was ready to capitalize on the goodwill of the holidays. Writing the appeals, I learned my first lesson: Successful building takes planning, so lay the appropriate groundwork.
What do I mean by groundwork? In this case, I found that the Board had yet to identify or define clearly potential participants. This made drafting those appeals nearly impossible. I knew which populations we served and what made them eligible, but we hadn’t clearly stated it anywhere else.
Further, this realization prompted me to take a close look at our operations and long-term strategy. Collectively, we set to work revising and fleshing out the then-skeletal strategic plan.
I spent both rounds of DC’s Snowmageddon camped out in the lobby of the Dupont Hotel with the founder researching, drafting and revising multiple drafts of our new strategic plan. Countless hours and cups of coffee went into that sixty-page document outlining the first three years of local operations and our plans for national expansion.
The return on those hours was incredible… nearly unbelievable. In just a few short months, we changed the structures by which we did business and we saw more and more participants come through our programs. Not only did we attract more participants, but we also retained them as spokespersons. Many who had come to us with deep skepticism and fear were now enthusiastic advocates of our programs!
Despite the hours of volunteer work—many of which probably should have been devoted to securing contracts with financial return—I felt alive! We were the engineers of programs that were changing people’s lives!
Shortly after the snows, two game-changers entered the picture. First, I secured a contract event planning job. Having neglected my job search in favor of volunteer work, turning down the contract was not an option. Second, our organization was featured on one of cable’s highest-rated morning programs.
We had planned for growth, but opportunities came our way at a rate much higher than we anticipated.
The entire Board worked hard to respond to hundreds of emails concerning expansion, sponsorship and interview opportunities and requests to participate in the program. In just a few weeks, the organization went from 1-3 participants per month to 2-3 participants per week!
With less time to devote to the organization and increased demand for our services, I quickly surmised that we might have overlooked yet another important lesson of the startup world: Set realistic goals—for your organization and for yourself.
Honestly, we weren’t prepared to ramp up operations. Perhaps we were all too ashamed to admit it, but the demands took a heavy toll. The Vice President of the organization fainted and landed in the hospital. Diagnosis: extreme exhaustion. I found myself working from 8:30am to 11:00pm in the office of my paying job and then going home to catch up on emails or review partnership agreements for the nonprofit. It became too much for me and for our small group.
Here’s the part where I admit my share of the blame for what happened next.
In the end, my relationship with the Board fizzled out and never formally ended. I was unable to complete a memo during the week of my big event and I attribute that day as the last of my tenure. I never found out whether or not I was formally voted off the Board. No one ever contacted me. I suspect they had grown tired, too.
I had come to respect and depend on this group of creative, passionate young people who empowered me to help build a program that supported dozens of families. They believed in me; I believed in us. Why, then, couldn’t I ask for help?
Perhaps I got too caught up in my zeal to realize that I couldn’t handle both the work coming from my rent-paying gala-planning gig and the volunteer work I set out to complete for the nonprofit? Maybe I was embarrassed? Or, possibly felt as though I had been taken advantage of? It was likely some combination of all of these things.
My journey might have ended differently if I had known this last lesson: Communicate with your team and know when to ask for help.
I’m not in business for myself. I wasn’t ready for that journey just yet. Still, I’ve been bitten by the bug… and I learned a lot along the way.
Keri Kae Almstead is a nonprofit professional with experience in resource development, event planning and project management for organizations of all shapes and sizes. She’s often found working on a project that has captured her interest, tweeting or making new friends. She holds a degree in International Affairs: Middle East, studied Biological Anthropology and wishes she could speak and understand all the languages of the world.