Last month marked two and a half years since I began the journey of starting a nonprofit. I remember I was attempting to go back to college (for around the fourth time) but all I could think about was the prospect of taking on this project. I felt compelled on a soul level to chase after this dream. So after a little research, I decided to dive in. Now was as good a time as any – I had only been married a year, had no kids, and due to my lack of interest in finishing college, I had very little debt. I was in my early twenties and I was antsy. Ready to take on the world if you will.
What’s followed has been an amazing and stretching experience. I have learned way more than I ever would have in a college classroom, have met some rad people, and have been forced to overcome obstacles that I never would have expected. Its been a challenge at times to continue moving the mission forward while at the same time needing to contribute to my family financially.
The nonprofit has had many twists and turns since we first started and it has taken a shape of its own. Over the past two years, building it from the ground up has brought me all kinds of excitement and joy as well as times of deep discouragement and aimlessness. Although, it is nowhere close to what I envisioned the day I started it, the journey has been richer than I ever anticipated.
There are two huge lessons I’ve learned looking back over this journey that apply not only to starting a nonprofit. They can be used if you are a freelancer, you’re starting a for-profit, you’re tackling a project, or in relationship with others. If I hadn’t adopted these two principles, I am not sure my nonprofit would still be around.
It starts with a vision.
I often live in the clouds, and this tendency was at an unusual high at the time of going back to school. I had gotten in a bad habit of skipping class and heading instead to a table on the top floor of the student union building. The table was secluded and a perfect spot to get lost in the pages of my notebook. I was being overcome by a vision that was starting to take shape.
I was unsatisfied with my education experience to that point, and had become obsessed with the idea of finding a way to mentor youth headed toward adulthood through the creative process. I dreamt of an apprenticeship form of education where high quality craftsmanship is celebrated. Providing space where collaboration and creativity are the catalysts for knowledge and growth.
This longing ultimately drove me to end my attempt at getting my degree and start the process of developing a nonprofit. It has been this vision that has kept me in the game. It has been way too lofty at times, but I am learning this is a good quality when pursuing a dream. C.S. Lewis puts it best:
If I am honest with myself, I am far too easily pleased not only in my pursuit of starting a nonprofit. I had never thought of applying this to other areas of my life, but I’m starting to see how it translates. “What if I had a grandiose vision for my marriage?” “ What if I had a large vision for my health? For friendships? For life experiences?”
Maybe, just maybe, this would drive motivation and whimsy, allowing myself grace to enjoy the journey – patience for today and a hope for the future. There is a lot that follows having a vision. It must be cultivated and it needs to be shared, as we will explore in a moment. But it starts with a vision – that tiny seed that moves you to act, to collaborate, and to create.
You must loosen your grip.
Without a doubt, the biggest lesson I’ve learned in cultivating my passion and vision to start a non-profit is to loosen my grip on the whole thing. As I moved from dreaming stage to action stage, I realized quickly how little I knew about starting a business. This began a long process of trying, failing and learning to ask for help. Outcomes were out of my control, and for the health of the organization it was important that it become a collaborative effort.
I began to open up my vision to others, becoming vulnerable with my hopes and goals. I was learning that, no matter how hard I tried; I couldn’t sustain my vision alone. I needed to learn to listen; to let others run wild with my vision, to cultivate a collaborative effort where what was created would far surpass my singular efforts.
“No set of goals includes everything that we are about. We all plant the seed that one day will grow. We water the seeds already planted, knowing that they hold promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces efforts far beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything. Knowing this enables us to do something, and to do it well. Our work may be incomplete, but it is a beginning. A step along the way.” – Oscar Romero
This idea of loosening my grip has been liberating for me and goes beyond just starting a nonprofit. In my nonprofit it means other peoples ideas and talent are leading the charge. In relationships it means I can be vulnerable and not always need to be right. In my home it means I don’t need to be bound by material possessions or financial stress.
Knowing that our efforts will be incomplete, frees us up to take risks and to play our parts boldly.