Starting a nonprofit is only the beginning. A successful and growing 501(c)3 brings with it a new learning curve that can make or break your organization. Growing pains that come with growth are the best kinds of problems to have, but what if you could skip a few of those pains? What if you as an executive director could be ready for some of the things to come?
We spoke with Beth Brockling, executive director of Sweet Celebrations in St. Louis, Missouri. Sweet Celebrations is a 501(c)3 built straight from the heart. The organization provides personalized birthday parties to children and teens living in homeless shelters throughout the St. Louis region.
She started her organization at the end of 2013, hitting the ground running in 2014. That first year, Sweet Celebrations provided just over 100 birthday parties (each complete with a custom-made cake, personalized T-shirt for the birthday recipient, gifts from the child’s own wish list, and more).
Since then, the organization has tripled its reach, providing birthday memories for over 300 children and teens in 2017. In addition to that worthy benchmark, the organization’s volunteers also obtain Christmas wish lists for each child. And in 2017, over 300 children and teens woke up to presents under the tree in the homeless shelter on Christmas morning.
Beth is sharing her top 10 list of things she’s learned in starting and growing her nonprofit.
“Set aside time for yourself and time for your family, separately,” Beth said. When asked about the most important thing she learned from running her nonprofit, Beth didn’t hesitate in her answer. “Running a nonprofit in addition to working a full-time job is something that will eat all of your time if you let it. You have to set aside time for yourself to recharge, and separate time for your family so they know they’re still a priority too.”
How do you manage to grow your nonprofit successfully and find time to recharge and enjoy the people in your life? That leads us to her next tip.
“If you try to do too much too fast, you’re going to get burned out,” Beth said. “People told me this, and I didn’t believe them. I was pursuing something I’m passionate about. How can anyone get burned out doing that?”
But life doesn’t stand still for us to pursue the things we’re passionate about. So how do you juggle it all?
Start by accepting that you can’t do everything all on your own. You need help. You need volunteers.
“Save the world, but do it one day at a time,” Beth said. “Focus on putting the support systems in place you need to grow—and to grow in a way that will keep your mission at the center of it all.”
Letting go of doing everything yourself is a hard lesson to learn because as a heart-centered executive director, you know no one else is quite as passionate about your mission as you are. While that may be true, there are still others who are passionate and qualified to help with day-to-day tasks.
In addition to finding volunteers to help with daily tasks, Beth suggests involving people at every level of the organization. “Eventually, someday, you’re going to want to retire,” she said. “You’re going to need to step back from the organization for some reason. You don’t want to see the baby that you grew from nothing return to nothing because no one else can step into your shoes and do what you’re doing.”
Learn to let go of some of the control you’re holding over the organization and trust those who are qualified to work alongside you.
Having someone in your life who understands the potential problems you may face and who understands the emotional highs and lows of running a heart-centered NPO because they’ve been there is invaluable.
An experienced executive director will be able to offer the best advice. How do you find such a mentor?
Start by connecting with other established nonprofits. Beth’s advice for finding a mentor: “Look for someone who has walked in your shoes who is willing to pass on the lessons he or she learned the hard way.”
Find someone you understand and who understands you, and then foster that relationship. Meet once a month or once a quarter to sit and talk. The ability to share your thoughts regarding the mental load of being an executive director will help you refocus on what’s important.
If you haven’t experienced it already, you will soon. There’s something about running a nonprofit that brings out the advice-givers in droves.
As you start your nonprofit organization, you’ll be receiving advice from friends, family, business acquaintances, donors, strangers—everyone! It’s a well-intentioned offering of help. It’s their way of helping you succeed in your mission.
Listen closely to each offering of advice. Examine it and see if it is indeed a good idea. Often, it’s something you’ve already thought of. Other times, it’s a piece of advice that simply doesn’t align with your organization or your goals for it.
“When someone—especially someone close to you or the organization—offers you advice, it’s okay to not follow that advice if it doesn’t make sense for your organization,” Beth encourages. “Tell them you appreciate the heart behind their advice, but you won’t be utilizing the advice at this time. Let them know you value them and the fact that they’re thinking about your organization and trying to help.”
“The hardest lesson I learned is that even my most reliable volunteers will eventually move on,” Beth said. “Life happens, and sometimes your most active volunteer will suddenly step away.”
Her advice for dealing with this: “Have a training manual ready to go to onboard the next volunteer, so you’re not scrambling to continue to meet the needs of your nonprofit to keep it going.”
She encourages nonprofits to have policies and procedures in place so everyone knows who does what and how to do it.
Check back for Part Two of the interview with Beth Brockling.