One year ago I set out to make life easier for Thurston and Grays Harbor county families. I saw a need to provide parents coping with cancer some breathing space by providing immediate, practical financial support. Twelve months ago, I didn’t have the systems in place to deliver on this idea. I had a website in design mode, no bank account or tax-exempt status, some folks who said they may be interested in being on a board of directors, and no social media following. Oh, and I also had $0. But, I did have an idea and I had people who were willing to be my sounding board on how to deliver on The Mayday Foundation’s mission to keep local families out of bankruptcy and in their homes while parents coped with cancer.
What have I learned in the past year? Turns out, quite a lot – some things that I expected (ie IRS tax-exempt forms are a chore) and some things I didn’t expect (how to say no when I really want to say yes). I have made plenty of mistakes and tried some ideas that worked and others that flopped. In the new year spirit of resolutions and fresh starts, I jotted down my learnings to hopefully spur YOU to say yes to building the idea floating around in your mind. And, maybe to also remind myself how far my idea has developed in a relatively short time. Indulge in the whole article or just read the ten bold sentences for the synopsis.
#10 Starting a Non-Profit Organization Is Akin to a Small Business.
Sure, the state and federal business formation forms are slightly different and the accounting is modified but starting a non-profit is so close to a small business that I would venture to say it takes virtually the same skills and resources. It also means there are the same highs (yeah – big donor!) and lows (ugh, another license form to fill out) and some of the same scarcity of resources to accomplish your goals.
#9 Find Your Tribe.
Leaders of new non-profits are searching for their people, too. I’ve started a few other businesses and there is perpetually a feeling of loneliness, no matter how many partners are in the mix. In the early stages, you are operating in a vacuum, wondering if your ideas have any merit. The perks of working on a laptop in the middle of the kitchen can be overshadowed by wondering if you just spoke to the dog out loud or simply in your head. Connecting with people who share a similar mission or role in the community is vital to maintaining your sanity (just in case the dog answers your question).
#8 Recognize that Fundraising = Selling = Donors = Investors = Customers.
It took me about six months to recognize that the words above can be used interchangeably. Acknowledging that fundraising is a form of sales made a difference to how I approached the critical task. For me, practicing telling my story in a multitude of settings made asking for funding (slightly!) easier. The first few times were rough but each subsequent telling meant the message was more solid, clear and concise. When I am talking to a potential donor, I’m selling an investment in The Mayday Foundation’s mission. I’m asking the donor to review my value proposition and to choose to let me be a steward of their dollars. I take this responsibility seriously (see next point) and am constantly revamping and revising my message to make it more meaningful to potential donors. I’m still learning and I believe this will always be a work in progress area.
#7 Surround Yourself with Criticism.
When I looked for people to donate their time and talent to serve on The Mayday Foundation’s board of directors and advisory council, I searched for individuals who would ask tough questions and be critical of my ideas. Criticism can be tinged with negativity but when donors trust you with their hard-earned cash, it’s imperative that you have people who can read financials, challenge your concepts, and point out new ways of thinking about fulfilling the mission. I am grateful for these this crew.
#6 And, also Fresh Ideas.
Olympia has dozens of non-profit organizations committed to serving the community. Collectively, these groups accomplish outstanding results. I wanted The Mayday Foundation to stand out, but also to not spend a bunch of time recreating strategies that serve others so well. As the advisory committee kicked around fundraising ideas, we brainstormed some concepts that were new to our community and came up with May Day baskets. It’s harder to create a new fundraiser and it may also be slower but it’s an opportunity for you to identify with your mission. I see this gift within a fundraiser growing in 2019.
#5 Embrace Technology.
Why? Efficient, working technology creates a professional tone immediately. If your website links are broken, your contact information is hidden or donors can’t simply donate money online, then your credibility as a reputable organization is taking a nosedive. People will notice. I’m lucky to have True Cedar making sure every click leads to the right place.
#4 Leverage a Partner’s Credibility.
Providence Regional Cancer System was a natural partner for The Mayday Foundation and propelled the organization forward at a faster rate. Not only did Providence nurses and social workers serve as a sounding board, but the marketing team appreciated the partnership too. (That means free press, folks!) Grant funding requests were also stronger because of the working relationship. Heading into 2019, I’m looking forward to expanding this partnership so we can help even more families.
#3 Say Yes while Recognizing You Can’t Help Everyone.
Probably the best piece of advice I received in the pre-launch days was from a non-profit leader in North Carolina doing similar work. She told me that I needed to create boundaries to limit who was eligible for financial assistance. It felt like saying “no” to some families in need, but in reality it means I can say “yes” in a more meaningful way to other families. Initially, only families who lived or received treatment in Thurston County could benefit from Mayday’s help but we quickly found donors in Grays Harbor County who wanted to partner to expand the services to our neighbors.
#2 Words Matter.
What you promise to partners, donors, board members, volunteers, advisors, and recipients matters. Be clear on what you can reasonably deliver. Likewise, I have found that some of the initial ways I thought families would need help (ex: on site child care at Providence Regional Cancer System) was not critical. They needed gas in their cars, food on the table, and the rent and utilities paid. But, overall, I think the words that seem to matter the most to parents in the throes of cancer treatments and financial worries is “I can help you.” I try to say it at the beginning of every phone conversation. What the “help” actually turns out to be can vary but just knowing that the phone call is going to lead to actual support smooths a lot of emotions.
#1 Relate to a Higher Ideal.
The sooner you recognize that your non-profit will not be the landing place for everyone’s charitable giving, the sooner you will be able to celebrate and cultivate the donors and grant funders who do connect to your mission. The first few months of The Mayday Foundation’s existence was spent talking about household expenses like rent, utilities, gas and groceries. But, in reality, what people want to discuss is our shared belief that no family should be thrown into bankruptcy or experience homelessness as a result of a parent’s cancer diagnosis. It’s this guiding principle that serves as the foundation for our message. It took awhile to get here (see #8) but this ideal connects us all as neighbors.
Bonus: People Really Do Want to Help.
I have been surprised at the number of times I have heard a donor or volunteer say “I have wanted to help families locally but just didn’t know how.” I feel privileged to be the conduit that connects donors with families in need. I am sincerely grateful to have created an outlet for these connections to be made. In 2018, more than 150 people graciously gave money to help 14 Thurston and Grays Harbor county families avoid financial toxicity as a result of a parent’s cancer diagnosis. Collectively, we have ensured 32 kids have stayed in their homes while their parent copes with cancer. Thank you!
Amy Rowley is the founder and executive director of The Mayday Foundation, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization based in Olympia, Washington. A breast cancer diagnosis at age 42 woke her up to the financial challenges facing parents coping with cancer while raising kids at home. A serially entrepreneur, she built the organization to make an impact locally. Amy is a mom, wife, daughter, sister and friend who relies on her tribe for critical thinking, bright ideas and smiles. She holds a MBA from Northeastern University and a BA from the University of Washington.