If you’ve started a nonprofit, you’ve probably spent a lot of time talking about your idea to gather support and feedback. However, there is a difference between explaining what you do to generate excitement and input versus trying to convert people who simply don’t care as much about your idea as you do. In her second piece for her series Failing Forward, Anne Desrosiers, founder of The World is Your Oyster (TWIYO)—a nonprofit dedicated to informing and transforming urban youth into leaders of tomorrow through distinct travel, cultural, and international experiences—shares the importance of focusing on community and gathering feedback from supporters.
When I last wrote about my entrepreneurial journey, I was in a good place; while the nonprofit I wanted to launch had been delayed, I took it as an opportunity to reflect and reenergize as well as get feedback from various stakeholders on what could be improved. In fact, I had gone back to my former high school and was in talks with the Assistant Principal of Guidance to introduce the program to students. My logic was that I did well here, had some roots here, and I could give back in the place where I began my formative trajectory into adulthood.
Another Failed Attempt and Growing Doubt
Unfortunately, after a few initial talks, I never heard from my contact at my high school again. Really—just radio silence. And whereas before I was dismayed and confused by last-minute cancellations and lack of follow-through, this time, I was angry. The do-gooder in me couldn’t believe that students were being prevented from participating in a program they might enjoy and really benefit from; the professional in me couldn’t believe, well, the lack of professionalism. Is it really common for people to just stop communicating with you?
While this certainly filled me with more doubt, I decided to focus on conversations with the 9th & 10th grade advisory staff, who were also teachers. They provided me with the insight I desperately needed: while TWIYO’s thorough and detailed application was a great reflection of my professionalism, it was too long for students and parents to navigate. And while our model of working with 9th and 10th graders was great, what about involving the older students as teachers? And given that all volunteers need to be fingerprinted before working with students, how could working with the school reduce this financial burden on my tiny startup?
I left our conversations excited and began incorporating their suggestions into our program. But I still couldn’t get help but be consumed with doubt about all the hurdles that seemed to arise each time I got closer to beginning at the school: where are the students? And the volunteers who will help me? How much longer do I have to wait and plan?
Getting More Support
I definitely considered throwing in the towel…again. But then I started reflecting on my purpose: Why did I rack up tons of student debt if TWIYO wasn’t something I was working on? What else would I do with my time if I wasn’t helping youth strive for great things? Even my current role as a travel agent was driven by my future work with TWIYO and while I love what I do I believe that TWIYO is what I was meant to do.
So I had a lunch meeting with my mentor and two individuals who were interested in hearing about TWIYO and sharing their wisdom about my current stalemate. My mentor told me prior to meeting that it’s important to let those who like TWIYO and its mission come to me instead of forcing the idea onto them and trying to convince people of the benefits; therefore it was “time to really think outside the box.” The truth is, I didn’t know too many folks who were clamoring to work with a new nonprofit, so how could I make stronger connections.
How about partnering with an existing after-school program and seeing if I could pilot TWIYO that way? Since after-school programs with histories had track records with schools, doing that would allow me to bypass the school outreach and focus on collaborating with an existing program and just focusing on TWIYO’s components.
Had I considered becoming a vendor with the NYC Department of Education? From my mentor’s colleague I was encouraged to align TWIYO’s program to the NYS Common Core Educational Standards. Teachers and administrators are actively looking for ways to meet these goals and if TWIYO does that – it’s a great selling point that makes the program even more valuable to any school.
Keeping the Faith
I think many entrepreneurs feel that until they’ve made it, and have some tangible proof – they haven’t done anything. And I definitely feel the same way; after all, solving problems is the business I have signed up for and I don’t foresee the problems solving themselves.
But my mentor reminded me that if launching is my biggest problem then, I’m on the right path. For better or for worse, starting something from nothing and building your dreams from a shapeless cloud into reality comes with its own sets of problems. I’m learning to enjoy the process and focus on the community of people who see and share my vision.
Starting a nonprofit or social enterprise? What advice do you need? What has helped you get through major hurdles?