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Start small — and be humble enough to ask for advice

Starting a nonprofit can be daunting. If you're in start-up mode, you might think the best advice would come from someone who leads a large nonprofit or runs a complex coalition — but that's not necessarily true. Here, MissionBox co-founder and CEO Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk talks with social entrepreneur Lisa Truong about what it takes to turn passion for a cause into a nonprofit.

Lisa is the founding executive director of Help a Mother Out, a small California-based nonprofit that improves baby and family well-being by increasing access to diapers for families in need. Founded with an initial $100 investment in 2009, Lisa's organization has since supplied diapers to more than 10,000 local families and grown to an operating budget of more than $600,000.

Tell us about Help a Mother Out. How does the organization function, and what was your inspiration?

Help a Mother Out distributes diapers to families in need through a network of social service partners, including voluntary home visiting programs, facilitated parent support groups, family resource centers and public health departments. We also advocate for the inclusion of diapers in the social safety net. Our vision is a day when every baby has a healthy supply of diapers.

The concept came from the realization that diapers aren't available under any public assistance programs in California, such as food stamps. After hearing heartbreaking stories of moms taking a bus from one town to the next just for a handful of diapers, I teamed up with a friend and fellow new mom to start the organization. We thought, wow — we're young moms and we're pretty socially aware, but we didn't know about this issue.

What was it like to start a nonprofit in the midst of a recession?

It was a challenge! Institutional funders were retracting from their giving, and endowments shrank because investments shrank. We started at the grassroots level, using word of mouth to raise awareness with our target demographic — moms like us who had young children at home.

Fiscal sponsorship is a partnership with an established nonprofit to help launch a new project. What role has fiscal sponsorship played in your organization's growth?

As a social entrepreneur, I wanted to focus our limited resources on proving our concept to the world — not the bookkeeping aspect of the organization or the back office functions. So, we partnered with Community Initiatives, a fiscal sponsor based in San Francisco. In fact, we're still working under the fiscal sponsorship umbrella, which gives us grants oversight, an HR department, a finance department, legal review and the ability to collect tax-deductible donations. Fiscal sponsorship has helped us focus our resources on raising money to further our mission and to prove our social impact.

What advice do you have for someone who cares deeply about a cause and wants to do something about it?

With social entrepreneurship, you have to really want it. You have to be passionate about your mission so that you can sell it to other people, and you have to be prepared for the hard work. If that's you, then don't be afraid to go ahead. You don't need to ask for permission. Join a group of other thoughtful individuals to make your impact, or start something yourself and be passionate about it. Be OK with a career path that isn't necessarily linear.

Is it OK to start small?

Absolutely! In fact, I'd encourage you to start small. Think through your mission. Consider your strengths and opportunities. Draft a business plan. Where will you get your revenue? Who are you going to serve?

Once you have some clarity on what you want to do, get buy-in from your friends and acquaintances. Use your personal and professional networks to find people who want to help. Look for related social channels, websites, mailing lists and other groups where you can spread the word about what you want to do. Know that you'll need to do some education as you raise awareness.

We started Help a Mother Out with $20 for the domain name and web hosting and $80 for a couple of donation bins. I didn't know many institutional funders. In fact, I still don't! And no one seemed to know about diaper need. So, we started with our friends and other young mothers in the community — the people we knew who cared. We asked parents, "Hey, would you donate your extra diapers?"

What about asking for advice?

Of course! You might have the vision but not necessarily the knowledge or experience to bring that vision to market. You have to be humble enough to ask for advice from people who know better than you. Even if it feels counterintuitive, take that advice and experiment with it.

Start by looking at your own network. So-and-so has a family friend who works in development at the United Way. Let's invite her to discuss strategies over coffee. Or so-and-so knows someone who runs a group of family foundations. Let me introduce you to him.

You'll also need to knock on lots of doors yourself — and not everyone is going to care. Even if your cause doesn't resonate with someone, though, it doesn't mean you're out of options. Maybe that person will know someone else from his or her own network who might be interested in what you're trying to do.

Looking back on your nonprofit start-up experience, what are you most proud of?

I'm proud of our evolution as an organization. We started out with grassroots advocacy, raising awareness through social media. Today, we're working on innovative public policy solutions for diaper assistance. For example, we partnered with the San Francisco Human Services Agency to open the San Francisco Diaper Bank — the first public assistance diaper program in the country. Through this partnership, we're able to use government funding to get diapers to the most vulnerable families.

Know another visionary leader or organization working for social good? Let us know! Email editorial@missionbox.com.

Lisa is a social entrepreneur with 15 years experience in the nonprofit and technology sectors. As founding executive director of Help a Mother Out, Lisa has been responsible for the organization's growth from an idea at the kitchen table to a nationally-recognized nonprofit that has positively impacted the lives of thousands of families. She has deep experience leading diverse teams in nonprofit services and digital environments, including previous roles at Tides and Organic, Inc. Lisa is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley. Lisa lives in Oakland with her two boys. In her spare time, you'll likely find her in the dance studio or hiking in the redwoods.

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MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.

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