Bootstrapping a Nonprofit: Reflections and Insights from a Cofounder’s Perspective
President and Cofounder
Peaces of Me Foundation
I didn’t plan on starting a nonprofit while I was in law school. Keeping up with class assignments and managing my health was already demanding enough. There were accessibility barriers, chronic pain, and a slew of other issues I was navigating on a daily basis. I was trying to maintain a rapport with children who had been forced to move out of state. I was trying to solidify my identity as a blind person with multiple chronic conditions. There was no shortage of things to do.
Ideas regarding what the disability rights world needed had been dancing around in my mind for years. Better access to resources, programs that recognize all of the intricacies that make us human, the list went on and on. So many problems needed to be addressed, but they would have to wait. When its time, when I am ready, when I have a partner that supports me in this initiative. Whatever excuse I happened to be feeding myself that day.
In the summer of 2019, things weren’t exactly going well for me. After a series of events that I won’t go into here, I was feeling quite broken. I was insecure, scared, and desperate for something that would help me find my purpose. My mental health was holding on by a thread. It wasn’t pretty.
It was in that context that I found myself sitting in Kristy‘s living room having a wide ranging conversation. We are first cousins, and we have always gotten along; but time and space head created some distance that we were just starting to bridge. We had not seen one another in well over a decade.
We swap stories of how the resources we had sought in our times of need had been insufficient, or simply nonexistent. On the surface, our experiences appeared so different. Yet, common threads emerged as we dug a little deeper. There is something powerful here.
When I approached Kristy with the idea of creating a nonprofit, I honestly thought she was going to tell me I was out of my mind. We didn’t have any seed money. Neither of us had ever ran an organization before, and neither of us was able to handle things like building a website. These were all significant hurdles that we would have to overcome in time. We had hope, grit, and an idea whose time had come. That would have to be enough for now.
<h2>Building the Team
And most social settings, I tend to be a little shy and awkward. My personality emerges more frequently when I am comfortable with the people or setting, but even that is a bit inconsistent. Although my confidence has certainly improved over the years, I still deal with impostor syndrome on a regular basis. This is not the profile that comes to mind when you envision a master networker.
That said, I was blessed with a few solid prospects when it came to assembling a team. Some of my friends and colleagues were true believers in the mission, while others we’re willing to take a gamble on me because of our personal history. There were also advisers and mentors who remained a step removed, but offered sage advice that would play a significant role in keeping the dream alive. While we encountered our share of doubters as well, they were a distinct minority, and we treated their criticisms accordingly.
As I write this, only a few of our original team members remain actively involved in the organization. I was advised early on to anticipate this phenomenon as we grew and developed. Almost everyone who has moved on has done so while singing our praises. Other priorities and opportunities arise, and we simply want our people to flourish wherever they go.
In a similar vein, supporters have a way of coming further into the circle as ideas become reality. Not everyone is comfortable with the semiorganized chaos that comes with getting a start-up off the ground, and that’s OK. We have activists, anchors, and disruptors. Each of them provides necessary skills and perspectives that keep the organization moving forward. Together, we create remarkable balance and synergy.
From a recruiting perspective, I prioritize individuals who demonstrate a commitment to lifelong learning. Subject-matter expertise is helpful, but only if that person adds to the overall team dynamic. Likewise, lived experience in the Disability world is an asset, but not a requirement. Some of our best supporters are allies who simply believe in equity and want to create a positive impact.
Bottom line: give me humble individuals with a thirst for learning and a good heart, and I will give you a team that can change the world.
When we started the process, we knew that there would be a considerable amount of work involved. Needless to say, we have not been disappointed in that regard.
I recall a conversation with a dear friend where this topic came up. He knew that I was spending a fair amount of time building the organization, but he was shocked when I told him that this was effectively another full-time job. For my last couple years of law school, I worked on Peaces between classes and well into the night. It is not a stretch to say that my role as an entrepreneur took more time in energy than my role as a student.
Contrary to public opinion, creating an MPO is a lot like creating a for-profit business. The primary distinction is that our proceeds go back into the mission, rather than personally enriching leadership. That’s not to say that we can’t or won’t pay people for their work. Rather, it simply means nobody is getting wealthy off of this thing.
Another significant difference involves government compliance. Like any other business, we are subject to requirements pursuant to whatever state we incorporate in. In this case, Arizona. We keep the state apprised of our board roster and other relevant information on an annual basis in order to keep the lights on.
Most people have heard the term 501(c) three, and have some general idea of what it means. However, the cost an labor involved in achieving that status is less understood by the general public. We contracted with an outside firm to Shepherd us through the process. We were still responsible for creating and assembling documentation, which was rather labor-intensive; but the firm saved us countless hours and energy. The completed application was over 75 pages long. Between filing fees and paying for assistance, we spent almost $3000 in order to achieve tax-exempt status.
NPOs are also responsible for compliance within states where they have any involvement. Laws and requirements vary from state to state, creating a jumbled mess. Since our team and supporters are scattered throughout the country, remaining compliant consumes a considerable amount of time and resources.
Beyond all this, there’s the constant barrage of needs that every business deals with. Creating and maintaining a website, managing social media campaigns, and other administrative expenses that pop up. These (and other) aspects of running an organization tend to get left out of the conversation when discussing fulfillment of the mission. If we can’t function as a business, we can’t effectively serve the population that we are trying to help. That is a universal truth, regardless of what nonprofit you’re talking about.
When I am evaluating whether I want to hire a consultant, there is one question at the forefront of my mind: can you teach me something useful within the first five minutes of your presentation? This is a demanding standard, but it has served me well. It is my personal way of separating the wheat from the chaff in the overcrowded world of consultants.
Believe it or not, there are those who passed my test with flying colors. These are the individuals that I build lasting relationships with. The ones that I refer my friends and colleagues to when they need support or expertise. Given our meager resources, I have paid for this assistance out of my own pocket. This hasn’t helped my personal bottom line, but it has been vital with regard to keeping the organization afloat. There are a few examples I could give, but I’m going to focus on one in particular.
I met Hugh Ballou in December, 2020. His course was among the various offerings put forth avirtual buffet of sorts. Hugh met the test cited above with ease. It was abundantly clear that he would be able to scaffold his insight onto my pre-existing knowledge, and help me create an action plan for success. His meetings were light on theory and heavy on implementation. I was hooked.
Despite his unfamiliarity with blindness, Hugh made a commitment early on to accessibility and inclusion. These sustained efforts have led to a deepening friendship built upon mutual respect and constant learning. He has introduced me to supporters and allowed me to appear on his podcast. I have sent him referrals and helped him with web accessibility. Everyone involved benefits.
More recently, our board voted to contract with an outside professional for help with our website. We have team members who are skilled web developers, but demand was starting to outpace supply by a wide margin. Frugality is a virtue, but only to the extent that it does not impede your ability to fulfill the mission. Finding outside help is not a sign of weakness or waste, it is a sign of growth.
I’m going to end this section with another rule that seems rather obvious, but it is still worth mentioning. If someone is not the right fit for your organization, don’t work with them. I refuse to hire anyone that I do not like on a personal level. Likewise, if someone is unwilling to learn about our mission and why it matters, we should probably move on. I don’t necessarily need a fire and brimstone advocate, but I am looking for someone who feels like the work speaks to them in someway. All the talent in the world won’t make up for sabotaging the team’s chemistry.
Starting an organization is hard. OK, I’m guessing you already knew that. I am going to highlight a few examples of setbacks that we encountered over the first couple of years. I would not say that we navigated everything perfectly. However, we learned, adapted, and kept going.
Peaces of Me is not the name that we started with. Our previous name was a clever play on words that was easy to remember and poignant. Unfortunately, the last in a series of database checks rendered a potential conflict. We went from preparing to incorporate and create a website to square one instantaneously. Although we could have proceeded with hopes of avoiding a problem, we were unwilling to assume that risk.
It took months for us to sort this problem out. We noodled more names than I can even begin to recall. There were several moments where we were all dying for something, anything, to stick. Eventually, Kristy presented an option that we were able to embrace. It was a valuable lesson in pivoting and persistence.
The pandemic has been devastating for the nonprofit sector. I have heard multiple stories of established and respected organizations that have suffered immensely. Most of them have cut back, while others have shut down completely.
We officially incorporated on 04/25 2020. In other words, right in the middle of the first phase of chaos. It is impossible to know how we would have faired if the timing were different. Our youth as an organization probably allowed us to adjust more easily than organizations who have been around a while. It also helps that we had always intended to do a lot of our work virtually. That said, trying to fund-raise for seed money while the economy is in freefall is suboptimal.
During the Fall of 2019, I began to experience pain in my wrist that ibuprofen couldn’t resolve. I’m no stranger to chronic pain, but this was a different animal. Over the next several months, I would lose function in multiple fingers, which made typing incredibly difficult. Sometimes medication took the edge off, but it wasn’t reliable or sustainable. I began to question my ability to carry the mission forward.
I found myself facing some challenging questions. On one hand, I was leading an effort to bring hope and defy expectations when it comes to Disability and chronic illness. On the other, my response to this new level of pain and difficulty was eroding my self-confidence. I felt like an imposter who was desperately trying to believe the message that we were putting out into the world.
I have arisen from that impossible place with some level of clarity. I am not able to do everything I wish I could. None of us are. That is part of being human, regardless of whether or not one has a disability. I am learning to give myself more grace, both in my personal and professional dealings. Our messaging strives to uplift and encourage while acknowledging the difficult realities that so many of us experience. Its A difficult balance, and we don’t always get it right. Ultimately, we do our best, and hope that its enough.
The original idea I proposed to Kristy was to create a database of resources built through crowd sourcing. We would establish a virtual community that spanned the globe, bringing in people with all kinds of experiences and characteristics. Our collective insights would create a wealth of knowledge unlike anything that is currently out there. It would be the Wikipedia of disability resources, and so much more.
That dream is still around, but it has evolved over the years. Projects like our internship program we’re not originally in the plans, but they have become a natural extension to the work. Other ideas, like our plan to create continuing education courses, are further in the future than we anticipated.
As the organization develops, we continue to find opportunities that we did not expect. Some surprises are a natural fit, while others are not worth pursuing at this point. Of course, we have to maintain a certain level of discipline and discernment as we evaluate these prospects. Nevertheless, there is a sense of wonder that comes from knowing that each new day might bring forth a breakthrough that catapults everything.
If I stop to ponder some of the successes we have already seen, I am simply astonished. I am similarly amazed by the people who have joined our team over the last couple of years. As founders, we want so badly for people to believe in our vision. When people we respect see glimpses, and decide to join the cause, it is incredibly validating. The process will never play out the way that we see it in our mind’s eye. If we keep an open mind and adapt appropriately, it might actually turn out better than we hoped.
Earlier, I mentioned three primary concerns that almost held me back. In all actuality, there were myriad questions that needed to be addressed; but these were the ones that really had me in a stand still.
Was it the right time?
Yes. To be sure, the stress of creating an organization while finishing law school was incredibly taxing. Add a global pandemic and social awakening to the mix, and it has been stormy to say the least. On paper, you could certainly make a strong argument that this was exactly the wrong time to attempt something like this.
That said, creating an organization was never going to be easy. A lot of people, including myself, have benefited from this community that we are creating. Even with the benefit of hindsight, I wouldn’t change the timing if I could. It has been, and continues to be, worth it.
Was I ready?
Yes. Well, I suppose as ready as anyone ever is for this kind of adventure. Kristy and I knew from the outset that we couldn’t do everything. We would have to surround ourselves with people who had a variety of skill sets, and we did. We continue to grow into our roles and responsibilities. We learn, we grow, we try to do better tomorrow than we did today. That’s really all it comes down to.
Did I need a supporting partner to make this happen?
Yes, but not in the way I envisioned. I spent a long time assuming that if I ever started an organization, it would be a joint venture with a romantic partner. It never occurred to me that I would create an organization with my cousin until the opportunity was right in front of my face. Looking back, I am incredibly grateful to be doing this with her.
I wanted to share that last part because our preconceived notion’s are frequently the barriers that hold us back from our potential. There’s nothing wrong with the original plan I had in mind, but it wasn’t meant to be. My assumptions, left to their own accord, would have prevented me from moving forward in a meaningful way. Those thought patterns did not serve me, so they need to be cast aside.
Despite our growing success, I still struggle with insecurity and doubt from time to time. I am surrounded by support and encouragement from our community, but I still have to make a conscious effort to let it sink in. This work is challenging and rewarding in equal measure. I make a daily effort effort to channel my pain, fear, and doubt into something positive. In the end, I hope its enough.