Visionaries

Kristi Werre, Executive Director of Illuminate India, Shares Her Nonprofit Startup Experience

| Updated December 1, 2017

Commitment, personal contacts and a powerful mission will help you to grow your small nonprofit

Illuminate India's Kristi Werre's experience with adoption in India drove her to improve the lives of orphans by starting an international nonprofit with co-founder Brie Mahar. Here, MissionBox CEO and co-founder Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk talks to Kristi about starting a nonprofit from the ground up.

Why did you make the decision to start your nonprofit, Illuminate India?

My youngest three children are adopted from Kolkata, which is how I met Brie Mahar, my co-founder. She and her husband were also adopting a child, and Brie herself was adopted from Kolkata.

In 2011, we traveled together to Kolkata and saw special needs orphans that weren't being adopted. We were struck by the conditions they faced— they didn't have physical therapy, adequate medical care or the right nutrition. We decided to do something about it and form our Special Needs Orphans project.

Once you start making connections, you discover other pockets of need. We found out about a group of children in a village located three hours south of Kolkata. Nearly 50 kids were sleeping on the roof of their school. We helped them find better living conditions.

The people who were taking care of them were committed to caring for them, so we helped build a home for them in 2012, which spurred on our second project: Career Pathways. Career Pathways helps them with the transition from the orphanage to independent adulthood.

We have been around for over five years, but only on a volunteer basis. We were finally able to set up ahead as a nonprofit in August 2016.

What do you do besides your nonprofit work?

I taught special education until Christmas 2015 when one of our board members came to me and asked if I would consider going full-time for Illuminate India. After careful consideration, I thought there was no way I could pass up the opportunity. Until then we were just all volunteers, which makes it hard to get much done and to really make things happen. When this board member offered to match my teacher's salary, I took it.

What would your advice be to someone who wants to solve social problems or do something to help others?

Remember to have a specific goal from the beginning: identify a specific group of people, children or animals that you want to help. Keep it small in the beginning and then broaden out as you start to have success. I think if we started out believing we're just going to save all the children who need help in India, we would have been ineffective and deeply disappointed.

Also, I would advise them to find someone else who has already started a nonprofit and talk to them specifically about how they have done it. Find a good tax attorney to file and get a tax-exempt status. I know some other people who have made multiple attempts starting their nonprofit and it can be difficult if you don't have a good tax person helping to set up your organization.

Have you started raising any money yet?

India passed a new law in 2011 forbidding any donations to orphanages from adoption agencies. But there were many families who had adopted children from India who wanted to help support the kids in orphanages. The government decided to allow registered nonprofits to step in with directing donations to the orphanages, which is one of the reasons we started our organization.

Who are your primary funders?

With our first special needs project, many of the families who adopted kids from the orphanage in Kolkata were our primary funders. Family and friends of ours came forward, plus a few small pockets of people who were interested in our cause and have run marathons or have done some peer-to-peer fundraising. It's really been a very small group and we're trying to grow our donor base. We have nearly 300-350 in our donor pool right now, which we're trying to grow.

We've been able to fund a building, continue the physical therapy and special education programs, and provide medical care and proper nutrition for the special needs kids. Since I came on board full-time, we've almost tripled our fundraising goal for the year.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing the kids you work with?

Many girls in the slums of Kolkata are vulnerable. There are many organizations focusing on human trafficking and helping women recover from being part of the sex trade. Many girls in the slums of Kolkata are vulnerable and at-risk of human trafficking. We're trying to approach the problem from a prevention standpoint. By providing them with education, nutrition advice and career skills now, they'll be able to find good jobs as adults - they won't be forced into dangerous situations.

I'm excited about the progress we've made since founding Illuminate India. There has been a lot of clean-up to do because we didn't have very good systems in place when we first started. At the beginning, we were figuring things out, but now I feel like we're in a really good place. We're starting to build momentum: our projects on the ground are progressing well and having an impact on communities.

Kristi Werre has a bachelor's degree in elementary education, and a master's degree in special education. Kristi was a special education teacher in the public school system prior to becoming the executive director of Illuminate India.

Co-founder Brie Mahar was born in Kolkata, India and placed for adoption with her family in the United States when she was two months old. She has always felt like she was given a second chance at life and has a desire to help those in need.

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

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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