We write a lot about social entrepreneurs, people who change the world through revenue-generating business models. But as we well know, there are many who find the nonprofit model to be a better fit for their cause. Here are some of the factors to take into consideration when deciding which option is best for your organization or business.
Non-profits are critical in the world of social impact, and their leaders, like social entrepreneurs, are often passionate, driven individuals who see problems and want to find sustainable ways to fix them.
We recently had a chance to connect with Ben DuCharme, co-founder of Chicago-based non-profit pilotED that is working to provide critical support to at-risk middle school students who want to pursue higher education, but lack the necessary resources and guidance to do so.
Here’s what he has to say about his work and his experience developing and growing a non-profit:
Tell us a little bit about your career path, and what led you to start pilotED.
As a senior science major at University of Wisconsin-Madison I found myself disillusioned with the career paths that lay in front of me. Like many other students, I had partially planned on attending medical school, but fell out of love with the idea of working 24-hour shifts in a hospital. I turned instead toward my other potential career path: teaching. Along with other recent college graduates, I joined Teach For America-Chicago, which gave me the opportunity to dive into urban education. Although naive and consistently humbled by my lack of experience, I also quickly came to realize that many of my students, juniors and seniors at Eric Solorio Academy High School, had made their way through years of school with poor skills and worse academic habits. By the time they reached graduation, it was too late to undo years of inconsistent effort, apathy, and poor results. Their trajectory had been set a long time ago.
The idea for pilotED sprung from this realization. Jacob Allen, Marie Dandie, and myself recognized the lack of concerted effort to get at-risk students on track for college graduation early in their educational careers. While there are many great organizations operating in the high school or after school space, there was nothing available to middle school students who hoped to do great things with their lives, but lacked the support to do so. pilotED fills that void by taking cohorts of twenty "C" average 6th graders, and leading them through a four-year curriculum focused on identity and academic growth. Our program culminates in the 9th grade year, once students have established themselves as successful high-schoolers on track for high school, and college, graduation.
What is your role within the organization, and how did you determine your team structure?
My official title is Executive Vice President; however, I focus my time and effort on pilotED's metrics and teacher training. As a young non-profit, the establishment of strong and consistent data is essential to our growth. At first, myself and the two other co-founders made most decisions together. However, that team structure was unwieldy at best, so early on the three of us sat down to map out responsibilities. Although that sounds quite simple, in reality, the release of responsibility can be a difficult step, especially when you are used to having some control over all aspects of the organization. Our team's strong relationship allowed us to see each other's strengths, weaknesses, and passions, which led to a well-reasoned division of roles.
What would you say have been the most difficult aspects of developing and sustaining a non-profit?
For a growing non-profit, momentum is key. In order to build momentum, you need to maximize potential opportunities. Whether it is an official pitch or an informal conversation with a key stakeholder, how you present yourself and your non-profit makes all the difference. Each of these opportunities might be the only chance you get to secure a donor or an advocate who wants to open their network to you. As an organization, we found that our passion for our mission and vision quickly developed momentum in the Chicago education community, but sustaining it now that we are a known commodity is our new challenge.
What has been the most rewarding part of the experience so far?
As an educational non-profit, I have seen two distinct areas of reward. The first, and the most rewarding, is seeing our young 6th graders excel. Watching young adults learn and grow together and support each other to become better students and people has been quite the experience. Seeing the pride on their faces when they strut around in their pilotED t-shirts is something else.
The other area of reward has been the positive feedback we have received from the Chicago education community. When pilotED was just an idea, we believed that it was absolutely necessary and had the potential to revolutionize students’ lives. But we weren't sure that others would agree with the same level of excitement. Over the past two years we have been rewarded by receiving overwhelmingly positive feedback from other education professionals. Whether in the boardroom or the classroom, people actively reach out to support us, which proves both how generous the Chicago community can be and that our work is valuable.
How do you envision pilotED growing over the next few years?
During our first few years, pilotED will double in size each academic year. In five years we will be in three cities with similar populations of urban students where the need for pilotED is high. We have already been approached by individuals in other cities about expanding; however, our priority is establishing consistent success before we scale at a rapid pace.
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about starting their own non-profit?
When you build a non-profit from scratch, the founders have to believe wholeheartedly in their mission and vision. Everything that happens to that organization over the first few months and years is tied to your belief in and passion for your work. We started pilotED while the three co-founders were full-time teachers. It would have been easy to want to forgo more meetings after a long day of work. But it didn't feel like work. What we were doing each night was so important that we walked away from our meetings refreshed and reenergized. I could not imagine getting an organization off of the ground without a similar level of passion.
So if you are starting a non-profit, I urge you to ask yourself how strongly you believe in the idea and the pragmatic reality of what it will be. If both excite you, then go for it. We need more leaders like you.
We’re inspired by the pilotED team’s drive to make a difference in a way that is impactful and sustainable, and look forward to seeing it grow. Check out the impact that they’re already making here, and then get updates by following them on Twitter and Facebook. And if you’re interested in supporting their mission, you can make a donation here, or even sponsor a student.
Know of a non-profit leader that is making an impact in an area that’s important to you? Connect with us – we’d love to spread the word. Here’s how you can do it: