10 lessons I learned by starting my dream nonprofit

Jordan Chaney and Reagan Jackson (center) with the youth of Many Voices One Tribe at the Pyramids of El Tajin in Veracruz, Mexico. (Courtesy photo)
Jordan Chaney and Reagan Jackson (center) with the youth of Many Voices One Tribe at the Pyramids of El Tajin in Veracruz, Mexico. (Courtesy photo)

Many Voices One Tribe was my dream nonprofit — a study abroad program that empowered young writers of color. I wanted them to explore their identities in a global context, experience life outside of the United States and build their writing skills. 2015 was the pilot year that we brought three young writers to Veracruz, Mexico. 

After hearing my program participants recount their experiences, I felt a deep sense of accomplishment and relief that I met my goals. A year of continuous planning and fundraising was worth it.

At the end of this journey, I have learned as much from my failures as from my successes. Here are the top 10 of my lessons learned:

You don’t know what you don’t know — get help!

I knew nothing about nonprofit tax codes, business licenses, board law, liability, and more. Thankfully my friends who did know about these things helped set me up for success.

Diversify your fundraising strategy

I was successful in connecting with many donors, whose gifts ranged from $5 to $200. But even with the beautiful display of community support we didn’t meet our fundraising goal right away, despite several unsuccessful applications for grants. We ended up hosting multiple fundraising events. This was great for outreach, but very time-consuming. I realize now that even one major donor or a matching grant would have saved a lot of time and stress.

Pay yourself first

I spent about 20 unpaid hours a week for 10 months building infrastructure, hosting fundraisers and working with the young people. The long hours limited my time for paid work. Also, more youth than I had budgeted for left the program before the trip and fundraising. While our budget covered trip expenses, the co-facilitator stipend was reduced and my stipend was eliminated. I feel proud of the gift I was able to give these youth but the financial loss has been disheartening.

Listen to others, but trust yourself

People who I invited to help launch the program didn’t just bring their skills and ideas, they brought their judgments and opinions. I endured some very condescending interactions. This brought out the worst in me. I reacted in an arrogant way because I knew my skills were up to par. But I also felt insecure because I was learning new things and struggling with anger, isolation and stress. My community has always been a source of strength and a place where I could find support. Yet somehow when I needed them most there was a disconnect. Since everyone I knew was quasi-involved I couldn’t talk about my troubles with anyone. I had to trust my instinct and my vision for the program.

Don’t be afraid to make specific asks from specific people

I initially asked people to choose how they were willing to help out, which meant that some people volunteered for roles not in alignment with what they could do best. I had to learn how to ask specific people to take on specific roles according to what they do best. When I began to do this it alleviated a lot of conflict.

Make amends

I am so grateful to everyone who helped make MVOT a success, especially to my co-facilitator Jordan Chaney. My biggest regret is that I was not able to compensate him the way that I had hoped. There is a laundry list of people I hurt or offended — and just as long of a list of people who let me down. I have done my best to make amends. I have forgiven and asked forgiveness. Now all I can do is move forward with gratitude and the knowledge that I did the very best I could and I have learned how to do better.

Put everything in writing

Changes happen. Always document everything. That way you know what worked, what didn’t work and what everyone is agreeing to do.

Plan like hell, then go with what works

The best part of it all was when we actually got to Mexico. We had a lot of planned excursions the first week, but in the second week there was unplanned time for the participants to choose our activities. These magical mystery tours led us to the live band in the Plaza de las Companas and to meeting new people. Some of the best moments on the trip were spontaneous, like when I came downstairs to find everyone chilling on the couch and writing or when we ran into a nearby parade and I got invited to dance with the salseros.

Azeb is coerced onto the dance floor by a man named Victor at the Veracruz Zocalo. (Photo by Reagan Jackson)
Many Voices One Tribe participant Azeb Tuji is coerced onto the dance floor by a man named Victor at the Veracruz Zocalo. (Photo by Reagan Jackson)
Enjoy it while it lasts

For the last two years, MVOT has been a huge part of my life. Even during the down times, it was always on my mind. The trip itself seemed to go by so quickly, but I enjoyed it immensely and created memories that will last a lifetime.

Self-care is vital

Self-love, self-care, eating, sleeping, and staying sane are the foundation of dream building. You can’t build anything if you are so depleted you can barely function. It seems so obvious and yet I know so many people, especially in nonprofit, who have no work-life balance and view this kind of selfless martyrdom as something to be proud of. It’s not healthy or OK.

With this experience behind me, I know even more strongly that serving young people is my calling. I plan on continuing the work of taking youth of color abroad, but I also know I must find a way to do it sustainably. MVOT is over for now. I’ve joined the staff of Young Women Empowered as the Youth Engagement Program Manager. The girls have asked us to show them the world and I am excited to meet their challenge.

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