A month before my 24th birthday, I was fatigued, directionless, and jaded from role playing in a life that wasn’t my own. Up to that point in my life, I made a lot of safe decisions, many that weren’t directed at my happiness. I decided to change this habit and made the rash decision of quitting my stable, well-paid job in a terrible economy. I jumped ship with foolish bravery and dove into an uncertain chapter. On my 24th birthday, I was jobless, broke, and stupidly happy.
In college, my passion project was social enterprise. I spent a year and a half building a program that utilized business strategies to accelerate effective models of disaster prevention in marginalized communities. The benefits I saw in using market strategies to promote long-term social change were endless, and I had a bottomless thirst to experiment with it.
A day before I quit my job I met Josh, a water crisis expert who worked in Africa for a year (who is now the other co-founder of Water Collective), and I knew it wasn’t a coincidence. An opportunity presented itself because it was the right time for me, and I was crazy enough to seize the challenge.
Although taking that first dive was difficult, everything after that first dive is much, MUCH harder. I spent months working at a bakery by day while I was building the foundations of Water Collective with Josh by night. Today, I still take graphic design jobs on the side on top of my 10-hour work days.
I see a lot of buzz around taking the leap into social entrepreneurship and the non-profit world, and why everyone should do it. If I’m being honest, I feel like so many accounts of being a social entrepreneur are romanticized. They always talk about a startup in terms of taking a dive and swimming to land, when my reality has been diving, sinking, and a constant state of swimming. Finding land is not guaranteed. Here are some harsh realities that I’ve encountered while starting a non-profit:
1. No good deed goes unpunished
No good deed goes unpunished, and there are no exceptions when you dedicate your life to good deeds. Just because you’ve decided to help others as your profession, it does not mean that someone will take mercy on you and give you a weekly paycheck, or that you won’t get called names for protecting your donors (this has happened to me). Prepare to build a thick skin, and be comfortable with an (extremely) modest lifestyle.
2. You don’t wake up every morning loving your job
I’ve read a lot of interviews and numbered lists where one of the key observations of switching to a purpose-driven startup has been that you wake up every morning so happy. There are mornings when I despise everything and want to throw my computer out the window. Because having a non-profit is THAT hard, and with anything you work hard for, there are going to be blood, sweat, and tears. No amount of love or passion for your job will ever trump the human limit of needing sleep, a proper meal, or a vacation. Which brings me to my next point…
3. Passion is 10%
At the end of the day, your passion can only take you so far. Beyond your passion, there’s constant project management, financial planning, and busy work that comprises the day-to-day of your job. Your lust for helping that family that drinks dirty stream water with visible mold is not going to push you through multiple 12-hour work days. If you want to start a non-profit, make sure you’re an experienced project manager who’s passionate about “x” cause, not the other way around. If you’re all passion without the know-how, you won’t be of use to anyone.
4. Friends, family ≠ donors
When you tell friends and family about your non-profit and they respond with how incredible it is and how they’d love to support you, it is not the same thing as them wanting to donate to you. Fundraising is an artform that reveals time and time again that not everyone is a donor, no matter how convincing you are. The majority of your family and friends will not help fund your projects, and it’s not something to be taken personally. Be prepared to put in the grunt work to find your funding elsewhere, and the prospect of annoyingly talking about your non-profit at every waking hour.
5. You’re going to be broke, really broke
Fast-food Chinese becomes a luxury and you have the McDonald’s Dollar Menu memorized. Many non-profit startups go without paychecks for the first 1-2 years to commit funding to completing their first project, or because the funding capacity isn’t there yet. No Cinderella stories here.
Of course with all the bad, there’s the good. Despite living through these realities and feeling every sting, if you still love what you do at the end of it, the good moments will make everything worthwhile.