I was born in the 80’s. In the non-profit world, this meant the height of direct mail with crying children or horrendous statistics printed in bright colors on the envelopes mailed to you from every non-profit that was able to buy your address from that other non-profit. Exploiting the exploited was the name of the game in fundraising. My parents, who founded an environmental organization in the late 80’s (and were considered highly radical eco-fascists to boot) loved to tell the stories of how our mis-treatment of the environment was having a horrible effect on the poor. Problem was, people didn’t like to hear it. None-the-less we participated in the snail-mail trend, where I was paid 1 cent for every envelope I stuffed, licked and stamped. Child labor at it’s finest. I’m sure that my Dad was cultivating relationships and making face to face asks at this time, but to my limited knowledge all I knew was that I put a story in an envelope, mailed it out, and money came back. Running a non-profit couldn’t be THAT hard, could it?
Choke. Fast forward 20 years and I’ve somehow landed as the Executive Director of a non-existent non-profit with no money and an incomplete documentary. My dear friend and founder had put her upmost belief in me because I had ‘non-profit experience’. Knowing how to stuff an envelope and deposit checks counts, right? On my side I had a deep passion for the issue (prevention of child prostitution), my relentless ability to bring people into my story and passions thereby making it theirs, too (who can say that they don’t want to prevent child prostitution and still have a heart?) and the limited experience I had working in my Dad’s office from a young age. What I lacked – and lacked greatly – was a thick enough skin to deal with rejection.
After my first round of letters pleading with my friends, family and long-lost contacts that I prayed and hoped would remember me and want to support my work – I realized that $100 one-time checks were not going to support the programs we had in mind. Let alone our salaries.
Which meant I had to start talking to people. And. Gulp. Asking them for money. Sharing was the easy part. What petrified me was the rejection.
But running a non-profit means you have to ask. So, what do I wish I had known? I wish I’d known that when a donor says NO to supporting the work I care about that it’s less about them supporting my dreams and more about them finding their own niche in the game. Giving to where THEIR passions lie. I also learned that asking can be one of the biggest highlights of a persons giving career: knowing that they have the ability to change lives with their dollar is invigorating, and I am simply the bridge between their money and the need. So I wish id known that 1) asking is not only necessary but appreciated and 2) my gift might be in telling story while other people’s gifts might be in giving: you’re doing them a disservice by not asking and 3) no isn’t the end of the road. I repeat. No is not the end.
Non Profit 101 is a series of posts about lessons I’ve learned starting a non-profit at the ripe young age of 24. Fake it till you make it is great until you actually have to make it… these are my lessons.