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Singular Focus, or Lack Thereof: An Important Reminder

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The more we grow up, the more we realize we can’t do it all, don’t we?

I’ve always known that tailoring every element of my life to taper down into the fundamental goal of The Great Exchange would be my biggest challenge. That’s not wisdom; it’s obvious. It’s life we’re talking about, here, with its natural bumps and curves and variables, and the degree of control we have over any of it is debatable. This is perhaps the paramount thing I admire about successful entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs; they seem to have this effortless ability to examine that line between “life” and “work” and then to erase it as if it were a mandala sand painting, beautiful but transient.

I believe I am closer to starting and founding a successful nonprofit than most because as I grew up, I didn’t have to work hard to erase that line. It just so happened that the work I loved to do–being a voice–coalesced perfectly with the injustices I had watched my sister and her peers encounter. However, there are external elements that exist today that continue to give that line a sense of indelibility, and I’m making a conscious decision not to erase it yet.

There’s a sense of acumen in acknowledging your willingness to be unready. I’ve brushed up against these signs of age (or lack thereof) in the past, and it always feels awkward and paradoxical to admit the wisdom of not moving forward. I’ve been on the “right” track educationally, but I was 21. I’ve been in the “right” relationship, but I was 22. And now, at the age of 26, I’m on the “right” path to start a nonprofit–but I feel undone.

I want a job. A real job–not independent contracting, not sporadic film work, not Americorps, not scraping by while I hold an organization together by its bootstraps. Those are all wonderful, life-shaping endeavors, but I’ve never experienced a professional life outside of them. I want a job like the one I started two days ago, one that leaves me exhausted by the days’ end but also intellectually satisfied, surrounded by companions, and secure. It is inspiring to walk into a beautiful office every day and watch my talented coworkers do what they do. It is inspiring to feel instantaneously rewarded for the goals I complete. It is inspiring to watch the founder and CEO of my company work his ass off around the clock in a way I have never seen anyone work before. And I need that, for now.

This blog will continue, as will the Great Exchange. But for now, the blog will serve as a composite of the lessons I learn from my day-to-day experiences that I will someday apply to the best and most heartfelt nonprofit the world has ever seen. I will continue to build on the weekends, and I even plan on launching our first major event soon; but I will also rest. And when The Great Exchange launches full-throttle, it will come complete with the knowledge that I’ve tested every experience I’ve wanted to test; that I’ve created an exhaustive list of what I want out of an organizational leader; and that I’m ready to commit fully without having to wonder about the other paths I could have taken.

And should you ever arrive at a similar conclusion, in any element of your life, please don’t see it as a sign of weakness. I can say wholeheartedly that the acknowledgment of unreadiness is one of the hardest things I have ever done. To stare your dream in the face–or a person, or a place, or an idea–and to say, “I need a couple more tests,” is bravery. It is human, and it will help you interact with a greater sense of humanity toward every person you meet. And I can promise you that in ten years I’ll be telling you, as the founder of the Great Exchange, that working for another company for a few years was vital. I mean that from the bottom of my heart, or I wouldn’t be doing it.

I hope the nonprofit professionals who follow this blog will continue to do so, as I will continue to use it as a venue for applying the lessons I learn from a successful for-profit web development firm. And I hope the lovely members or family members of the disabled community who follow this blog will continue to do so, because every single lesson is still an arrow that points directly to the fundamental human right of providing our disabled community members with the respect they deserve. But my hope, most of all, is for the aspiring nonprofit professionals who have contacted me: if, at any point, another path seems enticing, please take it without regret. I can say without hesitation that you’ll fall back into your heart’s work when you’re ready to, armed with the knowledge that there isn’t anything else you’d rather be doing. And that, friends, is the heart of a successful nonprofit.

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Less Money, Mo’ Problems

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The Great Exchange's Mascot, Hoggle

I thought I'd entice you to read this by posting a picture of the most lovable money-trap in the world wearing his (my) favorite hat.

I went into this assuming that writing The Great Exchange’s budget would be my least favorite part. While I can wear many hats (similar to my dog), I’m not a natural accountant. It’s also the part I’m most afraid of, because at some point in the future we will be accepting donations and grants,   and I want to be 100% responsible and open about where every last penny goes. I plan on providing more transparent information than most nonprofits I’ve seen; and while this could be a mistake from a competitive standpoint, I’m hoping it will become one of the core values that will make The Great Exchange stand out. So I’m putting a lot of pressure on myself to start loving Excel spreadsheets and yearly/monthly forecasts.

In the spirit of full disclosure, The Great Exchange is not an official 501(c)(3) yet, meaning it doesn’t have nonprofit status and donations aren’t tax-deductible. The paperwork is being filed as I–well, not as I write this, because I’m writing this–but it’s being filed. It’s going to take a little while, and in the meantime I’m looking into fiscal sponsorship from an established nonprofit, which would allow me to use some of their infrastructure, including their 501(c)(3) status. More on this later.

The point is, I am not accepting donations yet (hence, the reason our donations page is so bare bones), which means The Great Exchange’s budget is currently fearsomely intertwined with my own personal budget. And that’s where I made my first mistake! Cue the confetti! See, it turns out that even without throwing a single event or even holding my first group meeting, there are unforeseen start-up costs. There’s domain registration; purchasing Google Apps so I can perform outreach from a Great Exchange email account; newsletter software; web site upgrades that will make The Great Exchange more crawlable (ie–more views); and much more. Additionally, while I’m bootstrapping as much as possible, I refuse to scrimp on decent graphic design and the like. My contest on 99 Designs cost me $300, but if it will result in helping The Great Exchange present an attractive face to the community, then it’s money well spent.

What puts me over the edge, financially? Well, remember that part where I said The Great Exchange’s budget is feeding off my own? Earlier this year when I went to the animal shelter looking for a companion, I couldn’t resist adopting a special-needs dog named Hoggle. His two back legs are locked in an unnatural and painful position, and he needs surgery on both legs to be fully functioning, pain-free, and happy. This isn’t cheap, despite a lovely show of support from people who have decided to donate on the Austin Pets Alive web site.

Suffice to say, money is even tighter than I thought it would be. Everything is going to be absolutely fine, of course. My age is in my corner with this one; I’m young enough so that I don’t have a mortgage, children, or other major financial responsibilities. I’m resilient enough so that I don’t mind killing a few roaches in my apartment or smelling nauseating fried food every time I walk out my door (we live across from a Wendy’s). I’m also perfectly happy eating meals that consist of various iterations of rice and eggs, and it helps a lot to have a boyfriend whose greatest pleasure in life is visiting the grocery store and buying fancy produce for the both of us. So, all is well in my world.

But it does prompt me to give this advice: 

If you’re thinking of starting a nonprofit or business as a means of remedying your unemployment, and you’re not one of the lucky ones who has some seed capital or a couple Angel Investors, don’t do it. Not only will you be performing untold hours of work for free–maybe for years–but you will also be sinking your own money into a plethora of costs, only half of which you anticipated. If there’s anybody in your life who relies on you financially, you may end up putting too much pressure on yourself to provide for them while staying afloat, and you won’t be able to make your clearest decisions regarding your start-up. I understand the entrepreneurial drive better than anybody, but from a logistical standpoint, most people would be much better off just finding a job.

Well, that’s enough of that. Thanks for reading a lot of words about finances, and I’ll keep everybody posted on the results of my “will they or won’t they?” relationship with Quickbooks! I know; the tension is killing me too!