Author’s Note: This is the first of the last two installments of my 12 month/article journey through “lessons from building a foundation”. I promised last month that the last two articles of this series would be a compilation of short stories and lessons attached to each so, here goes:
My once and still favorite charity began working with us in 2001. They remain our symbol of both success and failure (ours, not theirs).
Early on, we worked on issues as simple as “finding where their money was” by sending over my company’s bookkeeper every Friday afternoon. Shortly after, we had our first marketing concept success with them – which I still use as an example of building revenue streams using what your organization already does well.
Then, we made our first mistake by responding to a seasonal lag in revenue one summer by closing that gap with a large contribution. Not surprisingly, the next three summers brought a similar request for funds and I “ponied up” each time to get them through the trouble.
Our final blunder came when we paid for a development person who didn’t work out.
We are functional when we are teaching bookkeeping or building marketing concepts. But we lose our effectiveness, to ourselves and to our partners, when we just cough up money.
Teaching and conceptual support leads to sustainability without us.
Coughing up dough leads to dependence – not independence.
Just as my foundation got real money in 2007, the Catholic Church closed the parish we had been working at since 1997. This parish in the inner city of Cleveland had long since lost its financial viability (I sang with about 50 parishioners on a good Sunday) but the early 1900 constructed buildings were sturdy.
God bless the diocese and some very hard working people who’d helped repurpose the buildings for everything from free health services (entirely volunteer staffed) for the aging to Head Start for their children and tutoring by some wonderful Ursuline nuns. We even turned the old convent into three apartments for refugees from war-torn countries.
Once the parish was formally closed, though, the diocesan bureaucrats showed up with all the answers. The good news – they’ve continued most of the services that were being provided. The bad – they no longer needed us. “We’ve been serving the poor for 2,000 years”, I was told as we were dismissed.
Don’t get mad, get happy. As long as the neighborhood was going to still be served, we had to get our egos out of the way (though it was not always easy). And so we simply asked which services they didn’t want to continue and took those to another building in the same neighborhood. There we nurtured those services for a couple more years, then blended them into other already existing service programs.
So, with more money than we could spend in the inner city effectively, we did just what any serial entrepreneur like me would do: We came up with a dozen new ideas and built a staff and board organization (of great quality) to try to keep up with all my (please note the sarcasm) brilliance.
Due to the embarrassing nature of this story (to me), we will end it at that. J
Focus, focus, focus, focus……then if that’s not enough, focus some more.
No more than three major initiatives will ever be “on our plate” again. And what few board and staff we still maintain support folks already doing service to the poor rather than serving ourselves.
I am uncomfortable with awards. Those who know me know that’s not due to lack of ego, it’s just I don’t find taking them to be consistent with our mission.
I’ve made a few exceptions when the organization convinced me we could advance their process by taking the award. And so, I accepted one and used the event to kick off a fund raising campaign with $60,000 donated by me and a few friends of mine.
Three months later this group found out to their surprise and mine that they were not financially viable and were forced into a two year “sabbatical.”
Trust but verify. I had known and served these folks and their mission for several years but I’d never really bothered to do a complete review of their books and business model.
That will never happen again.
The common theme of these four, and the four stories and lessons I’ll share next month, is that I must always strive to “reach for the middle” when serving those who serve the poor.
I think a lot of people lose momentum by seeking perfection or “reaching for the stars” as they say. And many others lose momentum through despair when confronted by the inevitable hurdles. This is a one step forward, two steps back business, I have found, just like most others.
And so, we must take our lumps and keep our spirit – and try not to get to high or too low.