Launching a local chapter of a national nonprofit means staying laser focused on goals.
Nancy Pollard is executive director of the Austin, Texas chapter of Friends of the Children, a national nonprofit working to break the cycle of generational poverty by providing full time professional mentors to at-risk children for 12 1/2 years, beginning in kindergarten.
Here, Nancy is interviewed by MissionBox CEO and co-founder Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk about getting a local chapter of a national nonprofit up and running.
How did you make the transition from practicing law as a tax attorney to executive director of a nonprofit?
I’ve always had a heart for nonprofits and have given my time and resources to them throughout my career. While practicing law, I spent my free time volunteering and fundraising with the Dallas Junior League, founded and ran an all-breed dog rescue organization and served on the board of an international adoption agency.
As the years have gone by, I've served in environmental and educational causes too and have gradually narrowed my focus to advocating for vulnerable children and abandoned dogs. I’ve spent my free time this way because I believed I had a skill set that could be used for something really important. Not that tax law doesn’t help people — it actually helps non profits quite a bit!
After a stint at home raising our young children, I knew, though, that when I was ready to re-enter the broader workforce I wanted it to be in a capacity that would allow me to spend my days using my skills, experience and resources to do something that I believe is impactful and significant for our world. The opportunity to do this now has been a huge gift.
How did you start working with Friends of the Children?
My good friend, Rachel Arnold, discovered Friends of the Children through her job at Vista Equity Partners; she was extremely excited about this 25-year-old organization and the opportunity to leverage a $25 million national expansion campaign to bring the program to Austin. The concept, and in particular the founder’s book “The Art of Being There,” grabbed me quickly.
I serve as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) and have become acutely aware of the impact that can be made when one adult feels responsible for making sure that one vulnerable child does not fall through the cracks. I knew that to expand this power from a volunteer who advocates for a child’s best interests in court to a full time professional who follows a child in all aspects of his life for 12 years could be immeasurably impactful.
Research has shown that the single most important factor for developing resilience in vulnerable children is the presence of a consistent, caring adult. We now have the opportunity to provide that for our community’s most at-risk children. Rachel and I really feel like the sky's the limit in terms of how many of these children we can find and serve. If we can develop our program with integrity, and find new donors and create a sustainable funding base, there’s really no reason we can’t bring this to every vulnerable child in our city. That’s why I’m so excited!
What advice or tips would you give to someone who has a great idea for a nonprofit, but no template or roadmap to follow?
Bite-sized chunks! We had a really tight timeline in order to get our chapter off the ground — 3 months to raise 3 years of operating funds. That goal was sort of daunting, but because it was a strict window, we were able to say, ”Let’s just give this everything that we have for 3 months, and either we make it happen or we don’t.”
The more risk-averse part of me was able to step aside because we had something very tangible to focus on. We had a clear goal and timeline. And we had a real drive and determination to get there. We actually didn’t say, “What if this doesn’t happen?” We just focused on our goal and on our timeline. And every day, we’re putting in the legwork to try to get there.
The National Friends of the Children team is very transparent about what the steps are to build a new and successful chapter. It's tempting when you’re starting something new to get incredibly overwhelmed by the enormity of it and all of the many pieces you need to have in place. For me, it was really helpful to follow their guidance and say: “We’re going to spend this much time fundraising” at the outset. And then move on to “we’re going to spend a month working on the logistics—bank accounts, copy machines, and all those things”, followed by, “we’re going to spend 3 months thinking about nothing but hiring.” All of your energy is being directed towards each component and as each milestone is reached, we move to the next one.
Have you found that compartmentalizing those challenges helped you focus on your ultimate goal and mission?
Over the months that we were working to bring Friends to Austin, we talked with potential donors, as well as our local nonprofit community about whether there was a need and desire for this program to be here. We didn't want to replicate programs — Austin has enough nonprofits! That initial outreach started many months of conversations with all kinds of people — donors, volunteers, and people who are already running successful nonprofits in Austin.
What I’ve realized is that everybody is incredibly supportive and helpful, people have lots of ideas and suggestions and they want to create partnerships. And while partnerships and collaboration are important, it has been so helpful for me to be incredibly clear about our model and mission.
We’re going to stay in our lane. Sometimes I see groups trying to be everything to everybody. You dilute your power and your ability to actually execute your mission. I think it’s easy [to get off track] in the nonprofit world because we all care so much. I believe our efficiency comes from being clear on our mission, focused on our model, compartmentalizing our priorities and needs and goals, and then just working with abandon to achieve each one.
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Before joining Friends of the Children, executive director Nancy Pollard was a trust and estates attorney at Bisignano and Harrison in Dallas and Andrews Kurth in Austin.Rachel Arnold, founding board chair of Friends of the Children Austin is a senior vice president at Vista, a private equity company. Rachel was previously interim CEO of Social Solutions, a case management software company.