When I was first starting out, even the idea of filing non-profit incorporation paperwork seemed too daunting, let alone trying to launch chapters all across the country.
Over the last decade, in the course of growing FFAC from an idea into a national non-profit, I have learned a few key lessons that have proved true over and over again:
1. Take it one step at a time
When I was first starting out, even the idea of filing non-profit incorporation paperwork seemed too daunting, let alone trying to launch chapters all across the country. I set my sights on a goal that seemed manageable - giving local presentations. In the course of accomplishing that goal, other opportunities presented themselves, which then led to new goals and new opportunities. During this continual growing process, I gained the skills and confidence I needed to reach the next level.
2. Build networks and utilize those connections.
Without advice and connections from friends, I would probably still be working in an elementary school and daydreaming of a career in animal advocacy. Every step of the way, the friends I made—through the student group, volunteering, and attending events—have provided me with invaluable opportunities. It is hard to overstate how critical my friends and contacts have been.
However, this doesn't mean, “Meet as many people as possible and figure out how to use them to personally benefit you.” All of the connections I formed were genuine, based on shared passion and an enjoyment in working together. People can sense if you’re being phony or manipulative. Build relationships based on mutual respect, friendship, and trust, and down the road those will pay tremendous dividends that you likely could never have envisioned at the outset.
3. Forget About 10-Year Plans
I spent so much time in college worrying about my 10-year plan, and I often meet high school students who are stressed about what they are going to do with the rest of their lives. I wish I could go back and tell my former self not to worry.
My five-year plan included going to law school. But that’s because I never could have anticipated the inspiration to start FFAC, nor the many connections that friends helped me make along the way, which led to me working full-time as a founding Executive Director five years after graduating from college.
Of course, I’m not saying to throw everything to the wind and see where life takes you. You need to figure out your interests and skill sets, and your main goals for the next few years. Based on that, you have enough information to set off down the road. It’s impossible to anticipate the opportunities and challenges that you’re going to encounter along the way, so it’s futile at best, and a stressful waste of time and mental energy at worst, to try to predict the future.
4. Take every chance to pursue your passion
If you love something, whether it’s a hobby or interest area, or if you’re passionate about a certain cause, get involved in whatever way you can. Join a group, volunteer with an organization, go to meetups (post-Covid). Deepen your engagement by connecting with other people who are also passionate about the same things and by familiarizing yourself with the landscape of people and groups working in that field. Eventually, you might be able to turn a hobby into a career.
One lesson I’ve learned repeatedly is that I can never predict which events will lead to pivotal opportunities. Tabling at the BART event turned into $40,000 of advertising. Talking with someone after a movie screening led to implementing a plant-based program in a government agency. Organizing a community panel discussion led to speaking to a Fortune 500 Company. And of course, all of those resulting opportunities then led to more opportunities to connect with influential people and fundraise to further expand our work. You don’t want to stretch yourself too thin, but think of any event within your field of passion as an opportunity to make valuable connections.
5. Find your niche
Many people ask me for advice on starting a non-profit, then when I ask what their purpose is, they reply, “I don’t know, I just think it would be cool to start a non-profit.” Rather than deciding that you like the general concept of starting or working for a non-profit, figure out what special value you bring.
Do you have an idea for a project that no one else is doing? That can be a great reason to start a non-profit. Are you passionate about a project that already exists? Don’t reinvent the wheel, see if you can work with them! Competition for scarce resources is the bane of the non-profit sector, and it is made worse every year by people starting non-profits just for the sake of being able to call themselves a founder, rather than looking at the impact of the work and how they can best make a difference.
If you’ve decided that you want to work for a non-profit, there is a whole world of skill sets beyond simply campaigns or programs. There is often a huge shortage of graphic and web designers, HR and fundraising consultants, and many more. You benefit both yourself and the movement by building up expertise in one of those areas and then applying it to the cause about which you’re most passionate.
Katie Cantrell is the founder of FFAC and co-chair of its Board of Directors.
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