At 19, I developed my first non-profit, Free Change, which organized Free Stores, spaces where those in need can obtain clothing, food, and other necessities at no cost, share skills, and hang out. Growing up working poor, I was surrounded by evidence of need in my community, and wanted to develop a program that would serve and empower people. Since its inception, we’ve run Free Store events on a monthly and weekly basis around Detroit, Highland Park, Hamtramck, and Romulus, Michigan.
I embarked on the journey as a young student with visions of Abbie Hoffman, the 1960s, and revolution on my mind. At 26, I still hold on to most of those sentiments, but have become a bit wiser through my experience. As Free Change prepares to re-launch the Free Store, I’ve decided to share some of my youthful follies, hard-won wisdom, and words of encouragement with those interested in developing non- profits.
Tell everyone about your ideas and what your organization plans to do. Yes, EVERYONE. This is something I had been reluctant to do until recently, but as I’ve gotten older have realized is essential to accomplishing most things. Every time you do, you’re creating potential allies and probably learning something new from your conversation partner. Plugging your organization is so important in establishing and growing your organization and is absolutely essential to fundraising.
Don’t be afraid to connect with community/non-profit leaders to share you plan and ask questions. How did they do it? What challenges did they have? What are the keys to their success? See if you can find similar programs locally, nationally, globally. When we began the program, there weren’t many people doing the Free Store, but we were able to connect with Jessica Baldwin who ran a Free Store in Brooklyn, as well as the Baltimore Free Store to learn about their experiences, lessons, and challenges.
Become familiar with non-profits with similar missions. You don’t always have to start a new organization from the ground up. Perhaps you can work with an already established non-profit to expand or augment an existing program, or start a new program under their umbrella. The non-profit world has its share of overlapping organizations and redundancies, and it helps to draw on existing resources and build bridges between complementary programs. In a world of ever-decreasing resources and ever-increasing need, non-profit organizations will have to work together more and more and develop creative partnerships to accomplish their mission.
Community partnerships have been absolutely critical to Free Change. Space has always been an issue for our organization, and since the beginning, we’ve borrowed event spaces from other organizations to hold our Free Store events. Partners like World Vision and City Mission in Detroit, and The Holy Temple of Faith in Highland Park were necessary to keep the program going. Each of the partnering organizations also had their own communication strategy to get the word out about the events, and would usually bring some neighborhood volunteers.
Wayne State University provide both moral and financial support as we developed the organization and incorporated as a non-profit through their Undergraduate Research Program. We also received free legal aid from Community Legal Resources as we incorporated with the state and applied to become a 501©3. Both forms of support were key as our organization got off of the ground.
True to its name, Free Change has operated for seven years with almost no financial funding. Almost all of our donations are in-kind and we rely completely on volunteers to run the organization. You can accomplish a surprising amount with limited funding if you have a bit of creativity and a willingness to work with other organizations. It has limited us, though. With no paid staff, it’s difficult to find time to develop the organization. Working a full-time job, and keeping the organization alive has been difficult. Our service has been limited, and we’re still looking for a permanent location to base programs out of.
This is where it helps to start small and build support before establishing your entire vision. Many grants ask for evidence of work already accomplished and community support in their applications, so if you can get some experience running your program on a small scale, perhaps through an existing organization, it can bolster your chances of funding. If you don’t have grant writing experience, it can be helpful to take a grant writing course. I took a course at Wayne State that helped not only to give me experience in what funding organizations are looking for, but also helped me to understand program development and evaluation, components that funders are looking for and really are essential to successful program implementation.
The most challenging part of running a non-profit was that initial step—setting up our first event, and translating an idea on paper in to the real world. The conditions will never be perfect, your confidence will never be 100%, and there will always be people telling you can’t or shouldn’t do it, but like most things in life, if you try, you’ll find success. You will be surprised by the support that will appear when you aim to do good. In so many instances we’d worry about our next event location or having enough donations, and out of the blue someone will come through exactly when we need it.
Working with Free Change has been one of the best experiences of my life. Detroit is ripe with opportunity, innovation, and energy. Keep an open mind, have a sense of humor, work hard, believe in your cause, and be the change.