When working with organizations I frequently talk about the need to build a “Propensity for Action” in order to support driving growth and innovation. With many for profit, and nonprofit, organizations it is far too easy to cower behind the “Tyranny of No” rather than building a culture of action around the tools of hypothesis, test, and verify. A frequently response from leaders is that new ideas are too costly or too risky to take on but if the alternative is waiting for the perfect answer it can be equally damaging to an organization. The challenge is that the odds are stacked against new ideas and most of them will not work out at planned – they will fail. The irony is that unless you are willing to take action and risk possible failure you will remain stuck with the status quo.
A friend and former colleague, Kari Kehr, wasn’t willing to stick with the status quo when she started her nonprofit foundation Fuel Your Fight. Kari had just helped a good friend through end stage cancer and saw firsthand the difficulties that singles faced in fighting their disease and in managing all the other aspects of their lives. Specifically she saw the struggle in keeping up with the mounting medical bills. Having raised money for numerous cancer groups before Kari knew what was involved in fundraising and went into action to create a foundation that could help singles in their fight with cancer.
After raising tens of thousands of dollars in their first full year of operation, Kari and her volunteer board of directors recognized that the effort required to sustain the organization was too great. She readily admits that she underestimated the difference in effort required to run a foundation versus fundraising for an organization. While they have shut down the fundraising arm of the organization they continue to help those fighting cancer find resources and information.
Kari and her board took action to help solve a problem,
as a result they have changed lives: their grantees, their donors, and their own.
This is the story of Kari and the Fuel Your Fight foundation that originally ran in the November 1st issue of the online publication Pollen.
In 2012, Kari started a nonprofit to help single people who were fighting cancer by assisting them with the payment of distracting medical bills. A few years earlier, Kari had lost a close friend in her battle with cancer and saw firsthand just how distracting those bills could be. She recognized how singles lack the financial and emotional support of a spouse or significant other during this very difficult time.
Through the hard work of volunteers and the generosity of donors the foundation had quickly raised tens of thousands of dollars to help pay the medical bills of Minnesota singles struggling in their fight with cancer. Things were taking off but Kari quickly understood the amount of effort that would be required to keep the organization going. This year she determined that the organization was not sustainable. In the first year Kari had shouldered a bulk of the enormous effort in addition to her day job. For her it was an exceptionally difficult decision to shut down the Fuel Your Fight foundation but she knew that she could better use her time and skills to help other organizations. This is Kari’s story.
Q1: What had prompted you to create your own nonprofit?
A. Four years ago I helped my friend through end stage cancer. As I watched her battle the disease I also watch as she had the stress of a looming medical bill she needed to pay. Instead of focusing on her health, she was worried about how to pay this bill. Her friends and I created a benefit for her and raised the money to pay her bills but it brought to light the need to help others in same situation. Single cancer patients didn’t have a spouse’s salary or benefits to count on. I wanted to create a foundation that helped people like Cathy to pay their bills and alleviate that stress during their fight.
Q2: What were some of the biggest challenges in leading your nonprofit with a team of volunteers?
A. The first thing I needed to learn was how to lead friends. Our board was composed of people in my life that believed in the mission and wanted to help. That was an adjustment for me to lead as a leader and not to just ask as a friend. We all respect one another and brought different talents to the table. Leading a volunteer board was never an issue, however finding volunteers that could commit to leading work for our organization was a big challenge and one that I didn’t anticipate.
Q3: What was your fondest memory of the work?
Some of my best memories were speaking with people about their cancer experiences and offering them support both emotionally and through the resources page on our website. People want to know someone is there to support them; it was a great feeling to have them know our foundation could be that in their time of need.
Q4: What was the turning point for you when you decided that the work wasn’t sustainable?
Getting word out that we were here to help others was difficult. We didn’t plan for marketing. We were naïve to think we would form and people would hear about us through word of mouth and we would be successful. What we learned was, with all the nonprofits out there, we seemed to be lacking the awareness to grow our support system and identify recipients for our grants.
Q5: How hard was the decision to shut down your nonprofit?
I knew for about five months before we made the actual decision to shut down. We tried every which way to grow our organization. I met with other nonprofits to learn their best practices and heard over and over we would need a full time person working to grow it in order to be successful. Our board of directors was made up of four women with big full-time jobs. Our passion was there, but the time commitment was not possible.
When we finally made the actual announcement to close down it was very emotional for me. This work had been a personal mission to make a difference in the name of my friend Cathy. I had to work through the emotions of feeling like a failure by closing down the nonprofit. I knew that ultimately it was the right decision but it was still extremely sad.
Q6: So where do you and Fuel Your Fight go from here?
I have always supported the LIVESTRONG foundation and their cancer programs. I plan to continue that work and also get involved with the Angel Foundation here in Minneapolis. It is important to me to maintain my fight in the Twin Cities area. The Angel Foundation is local and helps Minnesotan’s with household expenses while fighting cancer. They are very similar to Fuel Your Fight and we believe that they were a perfect nonprofit to donate our funds to.
Even though Fuel Your Fight is dissolved our webpage is still live. A very important piece of our site was a one-stop shop for resources for cancer patients and their loved ones, and I plan to maintain the site for that and my blog about cancer on a personal level. It is a great feeling to be able to refer people to that site and have them find help… it is where my passion still lies.
Q7. Looking back is there anything that you would have done differently?
Looking back I should have done a “competitive analysis” of what it takes to run a nonprofit. The raising of funds had come easy to me, so I had thought the rest would be also. It wasn’t. We should have met with other nonprofits to learn what it takes to be successful, and then moved forward.
Q8. Where there any resources that you found helpful in setting up your nonprofit organization?
When setting up our 501c3, we utilized a guidebook that the State of Minnesota had on their website to determine how to legally set up a nonprofit. The state offers quite a bit of information on their website. Here are links to a few online resources to help if you’re thinking about starting a nonprofit.
Image courtesy: BePollen.com
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