As I start my tenure as the next CEO of the Idaho Nonprofit Center, I wanted to share a story that I think sums up what nonprofits are all about.
My first nonprofit gig was right after I finished college. In school, I was fortunate enough to come into contact with a small band of passionate rabble rousers who were alumni of my alma mater. They were founding a nonprofit in Gulu, Uganda and it was truly a bare bones operation. All volunteer board members were dedicated to the cause, but had no real funding sources or leads.
I came along a few months later with the desire to gain experience and work overseas. Upon meeting with the founder and finding we had a shared love for the resilient people in Uganda, he said, “You’re hired! But… you’ll need to raise money for your own salary because we don’t have a way to pay you yet.”
Naively, I said, “Count me in!”
I got right to work writing an appeal letter, explaining my passion and desire to go work, for at least a year, far from home and for an organization nobody had heard of. I was to establish a network of solar powered computers and long-range Wi-Fi systems to install in internally displaced person camps – similar to refugee camps – as the country was recovering from a civil war. My job would be to get the technology assets in place, get users connected to the technology and trained, and find a way to sustain the organization.
I sent the letter out on a hope and a prayer to my parents’ Christmas card list of a hundred or so people. Because I told Ugandan stories and shared my goal, checks made out to the organization starting pouring in from people and places I barely had contact with during my life. Before long, I had raised enough to stay for more than a year, pay for my lodging, airfare, health insurance, and other expenses related to my work.
The first 48 hours were rough. Like many newly established nonprofits, I arrived with no real training, just a backpack full of good intentions. It was pure determination and grace that pulled me through those first few weeks. I documented that first night here in an essay for Notre Dame Magazine.
As the months went on, the organization starting picking up steam. We began installing computers and internet. I began training students, farmers, medical workers, and others. They began to gain more experience and opportunities. We were all growing together but it was a strange sight to see a white kid from the Midwest in a dark, hot hut while a group of 10-15 huddled around one computer screen.
Just as we were starting to taste the fruits of our first successes, things came crashing down. The radio tower we had been using to mount our internet service from had been compromised and our equipment was stolen, effectively shutting off the internet that we had been providing for thousands of people across the region. We were left with very few options as it was one of the only geographical locations to launch our signal from.
There were a few dark days ahead and we thought maybe we’d have to shut the whole thing down and close up shop. However, we did what nonprofits do – we persisted.
We eventually found an alternative solution and kept plugging away. A year or so later, we had hired a team of Ugandan staff and secured stabilizing funding sources. I often think about how easy it would have been to throw in the towel at that moment. Thirteen years later the organization is still around, having employed dozens of Ugandans and provided services to thousands.
I tell this story because I think we all have a nonprofit ‘origin story.’ And it’s likely yours is underscored, like mine was, by a healthy dose of resilience.
When we reflect on our nonprofit journeys, I think we all have that make or break, foundational moment. A moment that forever etches you as part of this ‘nonprofit squad.’ We are a different breed.
My hope as CEO is that the Idaho Nonprofit Center becomes a place where the best of the nonprofit sector is elevated across our state and to work alongside our stakeholders, the general public, business community, and government sector.
We are the do-ers and the hand raisers. The Idaho Nonprofit Center is here to serve you, make sure our sector gets its due, and is finally recognized as the glue that makes our local communities wonderful.
The ‘why’ behind our work is the stuff that helps us move mountains. As we embark on this journey together, please share your ‘why’ and shout it from the rooftops. Your ‘why’ is your superpower. Let’s make sure our state hears it loud and clear.
Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me. I’d love to hear from you and I look forward to starting this journey and next chapter together.
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