Why I will never do another “free” nonprofit
I remember starting my nonprofit in college. I felt like an adult: 22 years old starting a nonprofit and ready to tackle every need that came my way. I remember receiving the letter from the IRS saying, “Congrats, Transition Furniture is a nonprofit.” I was ready to collect and fundraise thousands of dollars to turn the nonprofit into a full-time job! I quickly ran into a problem.
I was serving people for free! I wanted to help everyone that needed furniture. I did not ask questions, and I was so compassion driven that I quickly ran into burnout. I had to take a step back analyze my purpose in the mission of Transition Furniture. I restructured the process, but I still continued to serve people for free, and people did not pay a dime for the furniture they received. It became a problem, so what did I do? I took another step back.
I walked away from the nonprofit because I knew that my helping was not doing anything but continuing to empower people with a free label. I was serving people, but to what point was I serving them? Was I empowering them to continue to another free event? Was I telling them to come back again and get more free items? Was I truly serving people in need? Yes, I do believe in helping people in need, but when do we realize that meeting a temporary need is not always the answer.
I recently finished my MBA, and my thinking process has completely changed. Starting a nonprofit at the age of 22 was not the smartest idea. I thought money would flow in because I was young and making an impact on the community. I quickly realized that funders want to see sustainability before asking for money. Now, I have an idea of what I would have done differently.
If I could go back in time, I would setup a furniture store based on income. I made sure to get good quality furniture from the people wanting to donate to Transition Furniture. I would tell people, “If you would not have it in your house, please do not give it to me.” This would eliminate the idea that Transition Furniture was just the hand me down place to donate. The new idea for the store would be that families would be able to come in and purchase furniture at a price they can afford. There is a lot of hard working people out there, but furniture is expensive, and they cannot afford to buy new. Transition Furniture would be a place for affordable place to reward individuals/families for their hard work. Transition Furniture would be a place to restore hope in hopeless situations and give them the push they need to continue working hard. Shopping at Transition Furniture store would be the beginning of their empowerment journey.
Transition Furniture made a surprise delivery to a “Crossover” family (Crossover is a ministry organized by Lee University). This family lives in East Cleveland and “Elevation” (the High School and College Ministry of North Cleveland Church of God) visits this family weekly. The grandfather received custody of his grandson when he was only a few months old. We met the family a few months ago but I noticed they had a lot of beaten up furniture and I wasn’t even sure if the grandson had a bed to sleep in. The little boy always brings the greatest joy to us when Elevation visits. He is entertaining and not shy at all. The more we visited this house, the more my heart screamed to surprise them with furniture.
It broke my heart one time walking inside in the house and seeing a toddler bed and a queen size bed that looked very old. We thought the grandson had a bed in his room but did not know since we never saw his room. I just knew we had to do something for this family. Here was a grandfather living from check to check taking care of his energetic six-year-old grandson. I have no clue how he does it but he is doing his best raising his grandson with no mom nor dad. I knew Christmas Eve was going to be special for this family.
In the morning of Christmas Eve it was raining! I was not even sure if we would be able to deliver the beds, love seat, and recliner because of the rain. Thankfully the rain stopped long enough for us to make the delivery early afternoon. Two leaders from Elevation went with me to help. We went inside and asked the grandfather to come outside. We opened the back door of our moving van and his eyes got big and he said, “Wow, you all have no clue what this means.” We first moved out the old furniture and carried the new furniture inside. Little did we know that his grandson was sleeping on the toddler bed and did not even have a bed for his size. It was awesome to see that toddler bed go outside. The grandson received a brand new twin size bed from Mattress Firm. We delivered a queen size bed, recliner, and love seat. The grandfather was so overwhelmed. I could tell he took pride in the furniture. He helped us move everything inside and it gave him a spark of energy. It was great to see him go straight to the recliner. The grandfather told his grandson, “This is the best Christmas you’ve had; you even got a brand new bed.” It was indeed a special day for the family but I will never forget what the grandfather said,
“I don’t remember the last time I had nice furniture.”
The past two years have been a roller coaster for me when launching a nonprofit my senior year of college. I’ve learned a lot about the nonprofit world in a short period of time. I wanted to share a few take away points. These are points I would give to anyone before they launch their own nonprofit.
- Check with your established nonprofits in the community and see if your idea is already put into place. It is better to use your gifts and talents with an already established nonprofit.
- Develop partnerships with other local nonprofits. Starting a nonprofit is a lot of work but getting support from established nonprofits makes the process a little easier. This shows that you are there to help the community and are willing to work together.
- Develop a board that is not all your best friends. Have a board that comes from a variety of backgrounds and careers. For example on our board, we have a lawyer, sociologist, pastor, digital media manager, IT specialist, three business owners, and a handy man. They are friends of mine but I do not hang out with them everyday.
- Develop a system before fully launching. In the beginning, we were helping anyone that called with a need. We launched with no system in place and got overwhelmed really quick with people in need. You can’t help everyone but you can help someone. I learned to narrow the focus so we could serve people more effectively. For example, our nonprofit is called Transition Furniture, we restore hope in hopeless situations by giving furniture/appliances to families/individuals that have had a house fire, moving from homelessness to housing, domestic violence, natural disaster, and grandparents getting custody of grandchildren.
- Get involved in the need before launching an organization. I was the volunteer coordinator over the summer in April 2011 when tornadoes ripped through our town and in March 2012, my role switched to unmet needs when we had a smaller scale tornado come through our town. I had families calling me saying they lost all their furniture and if we could help them. This was the first time I was involved in a need that was bigger than a one-time event. I realized that none of our agencies helped with this need and the idea of Transition Furniture started.
- Push through! Starting a nonprofit will be hard! You’ll run into a lot of brick walls but every brick wall built can be knocked down. It’s up to you to determine if the brick wall will be a roadblock or a hurdle you learn from.
Please feel free to contact me about any questions concerning launching a nonprofit. I would love to hear your idea! I’m new to this whole nonprofit world but it’s always fun to connect with other nonprofit leaders and founders.
“To do for others what they have the capacity to do for themselves is to disempower them” Robert Lupton Toxic Charity
This statement has been on my mind a lot. It has to do with my experience working with a lot of people in poverty on a daily basis. You learn quite a bit from working with people in poverty including people who are just looking for another handout. I learned my lesson pretty quickly when starting a nonprofit. I was serving anyone and everyone and it was taking a toll on me. I soon realized that I had to narrow down my focus in order to make a greater impact.
It was hard telling people “no” after we focused on the people we needed to serve but it resulted in eliminating some of the hand-me-out people. I’m not saying that I dislike the hand-me-out people; I’m just saying that helping them doesn’t do any good. A lot of the hand-me-out people have the potential to help themselves but they do not want to work for it. Yes, some may not know of the resources and then it is the job of our agencies to point them in the right direction. I know it’s hard because you want to help them so much more, but you find out a lot about a person when you point them in the right direction and let them go. It’s crucial that as agency leaders we don’t do for people we serve what they can do for themselves. This is a lesson I learned quickly.
People may not like this quote and say that we should serve the people anyway but that is because we do not take the right approach. Asking the right questions in the nonprofit and church world is the key. We need to learn how to ask the questions so that we can really help people. Another point is that if we spend all of our resources on the people who can help themselves, how are we supposed to serve those who really need us? Sooner or later we would run out of resources. I believe in helping people but there has to be a balance. This is why I believe in this quote and would recommend this book to any missions pastor and nonprofit leader. It will make you think on how you’re serving people and how to improve that process.
Each one of us as humans has a longing to be connected to one another. It’s part of our human nature to feel connected to people around us. This is a lesson I’m learning through Transition Furniture especially in the last two months. The more I interact with our families, the more I see in them a longing to feel connected. They do not just want only their needs met, they want people to talk to and hang out with. My eyes were opened to this truth in August with one of our shut-in families.
This family came to us from one of our partnering agencies. They needed a stove, refrigerator, and washer/dryer. We got them everything they needed but there was something else they were wanting: they wanted someone to talk to. Every time I visit this family, I spend an hour to an hour and a half with them. They love to tell stories of past experiences and share what is going on with them in their lives. They even tell me what they cook on the stove we gave them and offer me food every time I go there. When I leave their house, they always say, “Come by whenever you want”. This is one of many examples from our families. This is why we are not just a need-based nonprofit but also a relationship-based nonprofit.
We are starting to connect people to our families. This past Christmas we sponsored three different families and it was a huge success. We connected all three of the families to groups that sponsored their Christmas. I know one group is sending Valentine’s goodies home with the kids on Friday. That is one example of how some of our volunteer groups are starting to build relationships with our families.
We believe it’s important to build relationships with our families because it makes them feel appreciated and wanted. A lot of these families don’t have family members close by. Some fled from family members for a new start. It’s important for them to feel that they are welcomed in a city and know they are not alone. Our volunteers know that their time is not wasted, as their own lives are impacted in this building of relationships along with delivering/giving furniture. That is our goal and that is why I know this is only the beginning of connecting people to people. That’s what makes the future so exciting.