So, You Want to Start a Nonprofit? Part 2
By Reject Apathy
January 12, 2011
Advice from five organization leaders on getting started, setting goals and what they’d do differently a second time around
Nonprofit organizations are the culmination of passion and practicality. While some may choose to join an organization or volunteer to do whatever they can, others want to forge their own way and found a new nonprofit for their chosen cause.
But what are the challenges of starting one? And does the world need another organization fighting [insert crisis here]?
In this series of articles, you’ll hear from people who either joined an organization or founded a new one. Each offers a behind-the-scenes perspective on what they’ve learned, what keeps them going and their hopes for a new generation of advocates.
These nonprofit leaders are answering Christ’s call to care for the least of these—and they’ll explain how others can, too.
When David Batstone discovered slavery in the San Francisco area where he lives, he decided to do something about it. His organization, Not for Sale, builds shelters and trains citizens to recognize and bring an end to slavery. Here, he talks about this training, the challenges of fighting this issue and celebrating small victories.
Did you have any preconceived notions about running a nonprofit?
I come [from a] business background, so the first thing I learned about nonprofits is oftentimes we aren’t very good at clearly defining what our business model is. What I mean is figuring out how what you do today is still going to be sustainable in a year. If you really believe in something, you want to make sure it’s around for a while, it’s really going to have a legacy.
The other [aspect] is that most nonprofits aren’t very good at defining what their role will be in a movement—whether it’s against poverty, or it’s [going to] address HIV/AIDS or human trafficking. It’s like Microsoft saying, “We want to be in the computer industry.” Well, what aspect of the computer industry, what’s your niche and how are you delivering? That’s why I think nonprofits aren’t very good at cooperating together. [Say] my neighbor down the street wakes up in the morning and says, “I’m going to fight global poverty.” Well, I’ve got my own nonprofit to fight global poverty, and now we’re competitors because we’ve both got the same mission. But if I could more clearly define what exactly it is—what part of global poverty, how am I going to address it and where—then I can find good partnerships.
How do you convey the importance of modern slavery to people?
Part of what we need to do is convince the average American that [they are linked] to it in a very personal way. We’ve used technology in another way to do that. We created a tool called SlaveryMap.org. Slavery Map is an online tool where anyone can go and see stories of actual cases of slavery—not statistics, but real people in their own community, and who the trafficker is, who the victims [are], where they come from, [if] they got out and, if they did, what happened to them.
We [also] have an academy where we have people of all ages come to San Francisco, and they’re trained on how to investigate and document trafficking in their own backyard. We [also] created an app called Free2Work, and we basically came up with a grading system. We looked at 40 factors that go into making any product, and then we evaluate and grade those products. So on the basis of that, we’re able to give a product an A, B, C, D [or] F. And when I go into a store, I will be able to just simply scan the barcode of a product, up will pop the grade and now I know whether I can enhance the lives of the people who are involved in making that product, or whether their freedom was taken away.
What all does the training entail?
We partner with the FBI, [and they come] in and they teach about what they’re seeing. We have lawyers come in and talk about what it means to create evidence and to document trafficking—where someone can go to get a court record and where they can pull an ownership title on a house. A woman survivor talks about what she went through in the neighborhood where the academy’s taking place. We then give them field exercises where we go out [and] say, “How would you go about investigating a garment factory or a brothel [that] looks very suspicious?” We’re training people that are citizen investigators [on] how they could trade the evidence and the tips that can be passed along to law enforcement to close the place down in that community.
What are some of the challenges of being an organization that fights something so prevalent yet still so hidden?
One of the biggest challenges is that global slavery [involves] over 30 million people around the world. So how do we make decisions about what we should do first? You get smarter and smarter over time. Our mantra at Not For Sale is, “Are we smarter this week than we were last week?” So we say, “We may not have figured this out yet, but we feel we’re smarter than we were last week.” It’s really important that you [become] a learning culture.
Successful enterprises [and] social ventures are those that are able to … get to the next stage. It’s kind of like you make three steps, take a breath [and think], “OK, we made it this far, but now let’s re-think, re-strategize.”
What are some mistakes you’ve made and learned from?
We’re very technology-driven in terms of a lot of our strategies, but I feel that early on we wanted [a product] to be perfect before we released it—we invested a lot of money into it, and it slowed us down in a certain respect because we kept waiting to unleash programs [until we had it] exactly where we wanted it. The bigger we grow and the more resources we have, the quicker we throw things up there that we’re even kind of embarrassed about. Our first Free2Work app, I wished it did a lot more. So now we’re preparing version 2.0, and that’s really cool. Version 3.0 is going to be even cooler. I think part of it is for us to get over ourselves. We take ourselves too seriously at times, so I think by getting over ourselves we learn a lot.
Is there a particular person who stands out to you as far as personifying your goals?
Yeah, very much so. It’s a woman in Peru named Lucy Borja. Lucy was working with street kids in Lima, and she ran into a young girl. When I met Lucy in my year-long investigation [into trafficking], Lucy said: “These kids are being exploited, a lot of them are brought into the sex trafficking. I want to get a home for them.” I told her, “Let me help you build this house as a shelter—Not For Sale will commit ourselves to that.” So [while we were raising the money], a young girl named Veronica came to Lucy. She was a 13-year-old girl from outside of Lima who had been [trafficked] there. Veronica said: “Lucy, I’ve got to get away from my traffickers—anything you can do. I need a place to stay.” Lucy said, “Hold on, we’re going to build a shelter and you’re going to be the first person in it, so just hold on.” Two weeks later Veronica was found strangled in a hotel room, killed by a john. So today we have Veronica’s House, and Lucy runs it. It’s a place of refuge and shelter for young teens who are trafficked in Lima. Naming it Veronica’s House reminds us why we do what we do.
What skills do you utilize on a regular basis?
Curiosity and humility, because just when you think you’ve figured everything out, just when you think you’ve got the right set of answers, you find out it’s more complex than you thought. Being entrepreneurial is important. The programs we need to solve the world’s problems don’t exist, otherwise we wouldn’t have [the problems]. For the last 30 years, this has been on our radar, and we came up with traditional answers and they don’t work. Being entrepreneurial means being willing to step outside the rules of what works.
How do you remain hopeful while facing these problems and helping these victims?
These problems can be so overwhelming. If you don’t set attainable goals and then celebrate them, you get burned out. At Not For Sale, we’re very buoyant, we’re a very happy place. Sometimes [people think]: “Who wants to work for a justice group—they’re so boring and so deadly earnest. They’re so serious and they’re so down.” [People] think if you smile, you’re betraying the cause. We should be living in the world of hope. We should be promoting hope, and we do that by achieving significant results that then scale into even larger impact. The more we do, it’s intoxicating because you see where it’s headed. You’re moving in the right direction. You’re seeing, yeah, the problem’s huge, but there are solutions, and our solution is providing hope for people who have no hope.
What advice would you give someone who wants to start their own nonprofit?
A lot of [recent graduates] think: “Jeez, what a lousy time to graduate—I’m in the worst job market. I wish I had graduated 20 years ago when there was a boom market.” My challenge is it’s not a better time to graduate. I really think, particularly if you’re a believer, [your] first calling is to the Kingdom. This is a great opportunity for me to use my gifts [for] a world that’s really ready for it. We’ve got climate change, we’ve got HIV/AIDS, we’ve got environmental degradation, we’ve got poverty, we’ve got human trafficking and on and on and on. What a great time to be someone who wants to use the skills you’ve learned at university. Whatever great passions you have, use those to bring about the difference in the lives of those who can’t stand for themselves, [who] don’t have the same opportunities we’ve had for education or for training.
The other is that [young activists] are all so afraid, [like], “Well, how do I know what to do, what will be my first step?” For me, I’d say the best place to begin is where you feel your passion and skills meets the needs of the world—I call it your vocation. Take one step in that area, and you never know what’s going to happen next—you don’t know whether the Spirit will ask you to take a second step. For me, it was taking that first step, I felt my strengths as a writer and communicator.
The worst thing to do is not to take any step. So I guess [there are] two parts of this—one is to have the courage to take a step that would bring you to learn more, but also to find the ways you can bring new solutions and bring smart activism to global problems. We really need innovative and smart solutions that break the mold and are out of the box and actually achieve new results. So that’s what I’m calling a new generation of smart activists to do.