Passion can be a powerful motivator for startup entrepreneurs. And for those starting a nonprofit business, passion is particularly important.
“Passion has to drive the individual or the nonprofit will fail,” said Jill Dominguez, the founder and CEO of Essergy, a consulting firm for nonprofits. “If you start a nonprofit thinking you will get rich, you’re starting it for the wrong reason.”
Some of us discover our passion early in life—for others it comes later—after accumulating a lifetime of experience and knowledge. That is what happened to Brett Weiss, the founder and director of the Weiss Scholarship Foundation.
In 2009, Weiss, an Illinois native, then 59, headed to Dago, a small (population 3,000) village in Kenya. Weiss, in his second go-round of being a teacher (he sandwiched a career in software sales in between teaching gigs), had “always wanted to go to Africa and volunteer.” In fact, Weiss says, that’s why he returned to teaching in 2004—so he could have his summers free.
But like many of us, Weiss kept making “lousy excuses for not going.” Finally, a “health scare” in 2007 (thyroid cancer) gave him the “kick in the butt” he needed to join Village Volunteers and go to Dago.
Most residents of Dago, Weiss says, live in mud huts, without electricity or plumbing. The average family income is less than $2 a day. AIDS has decimated much of the adult population and Weiss says most children don’t have two living parents. Anyone experiencing that would be affected, but as a long-time educator, “I had to do something to help,” he said
He came back from Dago and got his students involved. They took on new projects every semester, including buying a cow for the village.
As he was preparing for his second trip in 2011, he wanted to do something “more substantial.” Drawing on his passion for education, he created the Weiss Scholarship Foundation to try to “end the cycle of extreme poverty.” At that time, most kids in Dago never went past 4th grade. High school is not free in Kenya, and most families can’t afford to send their kids. The Foundation awards high school scholarships—the first student who got a scholarship is attending university today.
To date, the Weiss Scholarship Foundation has awarded 54 four-year high school scholarships. They just started sending some of the kids who aren’t college-bound to vocational schools.
That’s the passion play. But what about business?
Weiss had never run a company before, but his father was an entrepreneur, so he was familiar with business ownership.
At the beginning, he did not form his own 501(c) (3) nonprofit. He “piggybacked” on another nonprofit that handled the donations, tax credits and legal and accounting issues. Weiss’s brother, a successful CEO and venture capitalist , came with him on his fifth trip to Dago—and the brothers decided to create an organization to help even more Kenyan children and become an enduring foundation—one that would last beyond Weiss’s lifetime.
Weiss had to up his game. This is common among founders of nonprofits, Dominguez said. “The majority of nonprofits are started on a shoestring budget with money invested by the founders.” Indeed, up until a year ago, Weiss paid 100% of the operating expenses, adding up to about $70,000 of his savings.
Weiss started his own 501 (c) (3) in 2018. He admittedly knew “very little” about running a nonprofit. In the last two years he’s been on a “crash course to try to learn as much as I can. I really think of myself as an entrepreneur.”
He’s applied the business skills from his software sales experience—“I make lots of cold calls, on the phone and in person. Every day I repeat a line I heard so many times when I was in sales, ‘Every time you get a no, you are just one step closer to the yes.’”
The most challenging aspect of running the foundation for Weiss is balancing the “two parts of the job. One is running the day-to-day operations and the other is doing short-term and long-term fundraising,” he said. “If I spend too much time on the operations part, then we are not raising enough money.”
Dominguez says most nonprofit startups find raising money to be their biggest challenge. “Can you [continually] ask for money to achieve your mission? This is a different animal than starting a business. You are asking for a cause, not selling the latest tools,” she said. “You have no widget, just a belief in changing the world.”
To become “more professional,” Weiss turned to his network. He formed a Board of Directors (a legal requirement) and an Advisory Board, consisting of his former students. Another former student built his website for free; and one of his board members designed marketing materials.
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The Questions to Ask Yourself
Do you have what it takes to start a nonprofit? Here are a list of questions Weiss asked himself before he plunged into launching a nonprofit.
- I have this great idea; how can I make it real and successful?
- Where am I going to get money?
- What are my goals and what is my plan to make them a reality?
- I will need help from people on the ground in Kenya. How am I going to get this help?
- I am going to have to go to Kenya on a regular basis. How am I going to pay for this?
- There will be other expenses. How am I going to pay for this?
- How do I make sure this organization is always providing first-class service on a very limited budget?
- How do I communicate with my donors and work to insure they will donate again?
- How am I going to market this foundation with very limited resources?
- How am I going to do this while I work my full-time job? I still need income coming in?
- Q&A: Are You Ready to Start a Nonprofit? by Rieva Lesonsky
- Thinking of Starting a Charity? Follow these 5 Steps by Steve Strauss
About Rieva Lesonsky
Rieva Lesonsky is CEO and Co-founder of GrowBiz Media, a custom content and media company focusing on small business and entrepreneurship, and the blog SmallBizDaily.com. A nationally known speaker and authority on entrepreneurship, Rieva has been covering America’s entrepreneurs for more than 30 years. Before co-founding GrowBiz Media, Lesonsky was the long-time Editorial Director of Entrepreneur Magazine. Lesonsky has appeared on hundreds of radio shows and numerous local and national television programs, including the Today Show, Good Morning America, CNN, The Martha Stewart Show and Oprah.
Lesonsky regularly writes about small business for numerous websites and for corporations targeting entrepreneurs. Many organizations have recognized Lesonsky for her tireless devotion to helping entrepreneurs. She served on the Small Business Administration’s National Advisory Council for six years, was honored by the SBA as a Small Business Media Advocate and a Woman in Business Advocate, and received the prestigious Lou Campanelli award from SCORE. She is a long-time member of the Business Journalists Hall of Fame.
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