How We Found Our "Why" and How You Can Launch Your Own Nonprofit On A Shoestring Budget
I laid down on the floor in my apartment, stretched out my arms, and stared at the ceiling.
I don’t know why I chose the floor, but it felt like something a millennial who just got fired was supposed to do. Very HBO's Girls.
I planned to work at charity: water for years.
I had no plan B.
I stared at the ceiling for another minute before thinking, “This isn’t my thing.” I rolled over and made some calls.
Disclaimer before I jump in: This post is about finding my “why” and how we launched on a tiny budget ($4,000).
Finding My Why Not:
During my time at charity: water, we grew from $1M to $16M in annual revenue. Growth meant massive expansion across Africa, South Asia, Haiti and Honduras. And my job and role grew with it; I was spending one-third of my time in the field, evaluating water and sanitation projects.
I had just finished my graduate degree in International Social Welfare, and it felt like my dream job. But with all that travel, came some earnest learnings and a nagging pit in my stomach that things weren’t right.
No, this isn’t a hit piece on charity: water. This is a commentary about international development in general.
A few months before I was let go, the Gates Foundation funded a study in 21 countries evaluating the sustainability rates of water systems in Africa. Here are the main findings:
- 36% of all rural water supply systems are broken.
- 1-in-4 wells in Tanzania break within the first two years they are built.
- Of eight major agencies, only 13% of their budgets go to maintenance and infrastructure repairs.
In short, everyone’s drilling wells. No one’s ensuring they stay working.
And I saw it in village after village. It is almost like a well graveyard, each broken well with their own plaque, celebrating who drilled it and revealing who clearly never came back. Instead of fixing it, another charity or church would come along and drill a new one, complete with a shiny, new plaque.
Once, I was in a village with six broken wells. I asked a man, “Did the village ever get together and try and fix one yourself?”
“No,” he replied, “We knew if we waited long enough, eventually you would be back - and here you are!” He didn’t mean me. He meant, “a charity.”
Not only is this the opposite of sustainable, community-led development, but it’s a huge waste of resources (between $1.2 to $1.5 billion, to be exact).
Here’s why we should all care about this.
Women and children rely on this water. When wells break, it’s heartbreaking and deadly. Yet, well-intentioned charities continue to plow ahead, drilling more wells, because they say it’s easier to fundraise for new water projects than to seek funding for holistic management. So, basically, it’s also our fault. As donors, we need to stop asking, “How much does it cost to drill a well?” and start asking, “How can you use my money to do the most good?”
As charity: water’s program director, I was very intentional about steering our donor dollars into the right water programs. I saw my role as being an advocate for solutions that do work.
The method to one of those solutions I found in a small organization called International Lifeline Fund.
They were a partner in Uganda. In between visiting two water sources they completed, they asked me if I wanted to stop in and see their stove program. I knew nothing about stoves. Truthfully, I think I just said “sure” to be polite. The director was really excited about it. And soon, so was I.
We walked in to see hundreds of stoves drying in the sun. A few men took a break to say hello.
One man shared that he was a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo and said something like,
“I don’t know where I’d be without this job.”
He mentioned kids in school and one in college. We chatted about how they made them, profit margins and growth.
I thought, oh my gosh, this, THIS is what development should be like. Not aid or pity. But jobs. Good paying jobs that give people a fresh start, dignity and pride. Most importantly, these stoves will go on to improve countless lives - especially those of women and children.
While stoves have nothing to do with water, I loved the idea that by creating jobs with a social mission, we helping to stabilize local economies and save children’s lives.
I never wanted to start a charity.
There are literally a million charities in the US (actually, 1.5M). I felt like we didn’t need another one. So, I began to seek out other leaders running remarkable social enterprises in Africa and asked if I could help them.
I loved how charity: water has educated and inspired thousands of people to give, even small donations. I wanted to replicate the empowering model of grassroots giving, but focus it on high-impact, low-cost solutions that create jobs. Unfortunately for me, every organization said the same thing, “We don’t want to start a grassroots donor program. But if you build a nonprofit like it, we would love your support.”
I should add that I don’t consider myself a leader. I’m more like your 18th man. I swam in college and with every meet, 18 women made the traveling team. I was, quite literally, #18 for every meet, all four years. I am a very dependable, hardworking #18. So stepping out to lead felt very scary.
But with the nudging of friends, I took stock of two truths:
1. In working behind-the-scenes at charity: water, I technically learned how to start an organization.
2. I thought about how I would feel if I didn’t do it. Would I be ok with myself knowing what I know and doing nothing to help?
My favorite advice came from Shawn Budde, my self-appointed mentor, who is also great at one-liners with my favorite being, “You’re not that smart.” Everyone needs a Shawn in their lives, and I’m thankful he’s been a board member of TAP’s since our founding.
He asked me to pitch him all the reasons why I should start The Adventure Project and all the reasons why I shouldn’t. I had a laundry list of why we should. And why shouldn't we? I could only think of one: “I might fail.”
He paused and said, “Ok then. Here’s what you do.”
“Don’t waste your time worrying about failing. While everyone else is worrying, you’ll be working.” -Shawn Budde
To this day I still think about that “Budde-ism” when my head gets in the weeds (or when I’m looking at our bank account).
Adventure is calling and I must go...
I made a moral decision that I wasn’t going to reach out to anyone from charity: water unless they reached out to me, first. I didn’t want to seem like I was stealing supporters or being gross.
Thankfully, one of the first to reach out was Jody Landers, who eventually became my Co-Founder.
For everyone reading this who knows her, you know I’m preaching the gospel right now - she is the real deal. She’s smart, funny, modest, kind as heck and oh, by the way, she has SIX kids. Who does that? Jody. That’s who.
The youngest of Jody and Andy’s kids (twins) were adopted from Sierra Leone. They realized they needed to raise a family committed to giving back globally. She started fundraising for charity: water with friends in her spare time (again, what mom of six has “spare time?”) and soon was raising over $100K per year for charity: water from her hometown in Iowa.
People always say, “I just need to get Oprah to donate and then my charity is set.” I’d argue, you need a Jody.
Jody used to be a prolific blogger until her kids learned to read. But now she’s famous for this Pinterest-worthy adoption quote:
"A child by another mother calls me mom. The depths of that tragedy and the magnitude of that privilege are not lost on me." -Jody Landers
Jody and I had met a year earlier in Liberia (as one does) and became fast friends. I marveled at how different our lives were at the time. I was the New Yorker who couldn’t find a boyfriend to save my life; she had half a dozen kids and was the wife of a worship pastor. But we bonded over our shared belief that often the most effective solutions are the least sexy and least funded. For example, everyone loves to fundraise for drilling wells, but teaching hand-washing promotion is proven to be measurably more effective in terms of saving children’s lives from water-borne illness.
Somehow, I was able to convince Jody to join me, and TAP was born.
The Practical Steps.
Jody and I launched because we thought there were people out there just like us. People who cared deeply about helping others and wanted to know their donations were going to the right places to lift people up and out of extreme poverty for good.
While the wife of a worship pastor and an aid worker are technically not the most lucrative of careers, what we lacked in funding we made up for with creative grit and hundreds of friends. Here's how.
Six days before I was asked to resign from charity: water, I was given a $30K raise. So ironically, my severance pay was more than I had ever made before (Again, when I say I was surprised to be let go, I really was! I’m also really glad I never got a yellow jerry can lower back tattoo).
I took a short-term consultancy gig at UNICEF for $4,000. Jody and I decided to not take salaries for over a year (This is a mistake. You will see why later), and I put the $4,000 into our bank account. Most of those funds went into a site visit to Haiti, a photographer (Esther Havens) and buying our first product - lumps of charcoal.
To tackle our operations and logistics, we made a Google Sheet, this spreadsheet, actually, and just starting dividing and conquering tasks. You’ll notice it’s not beautiful. But we wanted to launch our org before the holiday giving season. So, we set a goal of launching in four weeks.
Making it Memorable and Easy to Help:
Marketing was perhaps the most important thing we did right. When you don’t have a lot of money to spend, you need to find creative ways to get attention. Fortunately, we came up with a very cheesy gimmick.
Remember the Lifeline Fund in Uganda? Well, they reached out and shared that they were expanding their stove program into Haiti.
Jody and I, along with our photographer, Esther, jumped on a plane and flew to Haiti, to see the program firsthand.
The largest - and least-well-known - killer of women and children around the world is actually respiratory illness, from breathing in smoke while cooking over open fires. The smoke is harmful to their health and toxic to the environment. It’s equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes per day. Most Haitians spend 40% of their daily expenses on cooking fuel (charcoal). A locally-made, affordable stove can cut a family’s fuel needs in half.