Lessons I Learned from Starting a Non-Profit at Age 25

At 21 years old, I had little in the way of job skills or experience. I had worked traditional summer jobs, but nothing that was leading me towards a meaningful career. As a college senior, I knew I needed to start making some decisions but had no idea where to start. And then I got cancer. Twice.

After many rounds of chemotherapy, several surgeries, and more sickness and fear than I can adequately express here, I was set free from the hospital world and (mostly) ready to start my life as an independent young adult. This time, though, at 23, I now had a gap on my resume and was dealing with the physical and emotional aftereffects of cancer.

But I had perspective. And I wasn’t afraid of much.

I got my first post-cancer job at a public health education nonprofit, working with a great team on HIV prevention and safe sex education. They hired me over the phone because I spoke Spanish, so I never had to address the issue of my appearance (still nearly bald, very skinny, and on crutches) or feign self-confidence in an in-person interview. I loved my coworkers and was glad to be a productive employee who was learning critical job skills, but something was missing.

It wasn’t until I ended up at a conference for young adults with cancer – my people! – that I finally found my path. I had been fortunate to have parents who could advocate for me and friends and family who were able to help me find a job and apartment after treatment. But in the absence of such support, many other young adults were facing bankruptcy, eviction, and other overwhelming challenges before even reaching 25. So, after that day, I created a nonprofit organization to pay it forward and help others who were struggling.

Truth be told, had I realized how much work it would be, I might not have been so quick to start a charity. Then again, when your mortality stares you in the face, there’s not much more that can scare you. So, I figured the worst that could happen was that it would fail, and it was a risk I was willing to take.

Coming up with the idea for The Samfund was the easy part. Building a full-fledged nonprofit was another story. When I talk now to people who want to start an organization, I encourage them to think about things like organizational development, scalability, and financial management. But at the time, these were not in my vocabulary. It was very much fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants and I learned a lot, firsthand, as I went.

Starting a nonprofit with no money, few job skills, and zero business experience was challenging, for sure. But there were a few things I did right, and a few things I learned the hard way, and I’m happy to share them here as they can be applied to many different organizations and businesses.

1. Do your research first. See an issue that needs fixing, or a challenge that needs a solution? Google, extensively. With more than 1.5 million nonprofits registered in the US, chances are good that someone is already addressing the problem, don’t become a competitor. Join forces instead.
2. Know what you don’t know. Take stock of what you can (realistically) do, and find the people who have the skills you don’t. I found an attorney (whose firm, to this day, has provided legal counsel pro bono), my stepdad designed our original logo, my friend and co-founder set up our first website, and my uncle helped me with banking and insurance setup.
3. Keep an open mind. “Founder’s Syndrome” is a real thing. Don’t get so tunnel-visioned that you can’t at least hear others’ ideas. Perspective is good. So is discussion.
4. Develop thick skin. You are going to hear “no” a lot. From banks to creditors to volunteers to potential donors, you have to be ready to roll with the punches and not take any of it personally. Just keep asking (other people).
5. Be willing to work hard, and equally willing to protect your “me” time. (Full disclosure: I didn’t do this one well.) If you are creating something from nothing, you will likely be the only one, at least at first, willing to put in as many hours as it takes. But remember to take care of yourself, too. If you burn out, particularly in the first year, so will your organization.

Founders often get full credit for the successes of their nonprofit or business. But, in every way, creating and building The Samfund has been a collective effort. It’s only because of the continued and increasing support of many that The Samfund has awarded, to date, a total of $1.7 million in grants to young adults across the country, enabling them to accomplish their goals.

For more information:

http://www.thesamfund.org

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