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Don’t Start A Non-Profit (And Other Lessons Learned In 5 Years Of Still Kickin)

Five years ago, I was a fresh widow who felt like her husband’s memory was already starting to fade. The smell was gone from his shirts, the sting of his loss was less obvious on my face, and the world had rudely kept on spinning.

The origin of Still Kickin is in a faded, old thrift store t-shirt and Aaron’s Big Idea as he struggled with brain cancer: to recreate the shirt he was wearing the day they found his cancer and give the money away. 

But to whom? For what?

We initially decided “brain cancer research!” and sent thousands of dollars that way.

But I knew somewhere inside of me that just as Aaron didn’t want to be reduced to a cancer story, I didn’t want to spend my life laser-focused on one area of human suffering when there were so many different kinds of suffering out there. When you see the fragility of life and the injustices that keep so many people on the precipice of financial ruin, you start to see it more and more… and not just the people who are suffering, but the systems that keep them there. People came to me, and to Still Kickin, not necessarily because they knew someone with brain cancer (most people don’t) but because they or someone they love was going through something hard. 

In five years, we’ve given out more than $240,000 in direct financial grants to people in need. We don’t pay people’s bills directly, because we trust them to make the right decisions for themselves and their unique situation. Maybe that means getting out of debt or paying the rent on time, and maybe that means finding a moment of enjoyment in the midst of their difficulty. 

In The Beginning

The arc of Still Kickin goes something like this: Lindsay Wenner and I start Still Kickin as an LLC in 2015. I put a few thousand dollars on a very, very high interest credit card to get us set up with a wholesaler, printer and distributor. 

A few months in, people start asking: “Is this a non-profit? Can I donate to you?” And Lindsay and I say, “Well... crap, should we be a non-profit?”

So we fill out the paperwork and boom! It is! The donations… well, they don’t flood in. But they are a nice, slow trickle. 

 

 

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

A non-profit is ultimately a business. There are things like expenses and payroll. And like every business, you want it to grow, which means you need to invest in it.

There’s a pervasive idea that non-profits shouldn’t spend any money outside of their mission. I have felt it as a donor and also as a non-profit organization. And I resented it! Every dollar we spent trying to develop new products or pay people to do their jobs felt like it was being misdirected if it wasn’t being used to create a grant. 

So we evolved again.

The Still Kickin non-profit organization still exists, but it now exists separately from our retail-and-events-and-education business. Still Kickin is now an SBC — a Specific Benefit Corporation — that exists to help fund the non-profit. But non-profit money is non-profit money explicitly.

The Still Kickin non-profit is now led by Jesse Ross, a non-profit veteran and Big Thinker who is challenging us to do more and give more. The non-profit has free use of the SBC’s marketing and communications staff, and on the business side, we’re driven to do as much as we can to help fund the non-profit above the donations it receives.

And we still need to evolve even more. Because this shift meant taking a good, objective look at the business and being honest with each other (and with you) about what we saw. Here’s what we’ve learned:

1. You can’t run on good will forever. Still Kickin got a strong start (and a loooooong runway) with a lot of favors from a lot of friends. Lots of people lent us their IT, design and marketing skills to help us establish ourselves. That’s not abnormal, and I myself have never collected a paycheck from this work, but we know it’s time for us to normalize paying people for their work from the outset.

Five years ago, I would have told you, “But I can’t!” and now I would say, “Then maybe you shouldn’t start this thing right now.” Yes, even if it’s a non-profit. Many of the people who helped us in the beginning were happy to do it, and lots of people might still be happy to do it, but the line between volunteering and extracting more value than the opportunity provides is a very, very thin one. Which leads me to my next point...

2. Inclusion isn’t just a word. If the opportunity to work or create or develop something with you is unpaid… who can afford to work with you? What kind of an environment are you creating? 

I’ll tell you what kind I was creating: one of extreme privilege (and whiteness). Because the people we worked with were limited to people I felt comfortable asking something of, and the people I felt comfortable asking something of were established in their careers and had the time and the space to give their time.

I was also assuming that people who needed the money most would find us and apply for grants, when my own experiences with losing my husband very young told me the exact opposite: I didn’t have time to fill out forms and beg for money when I was trying to survive! 

3. Doing the right thing costs you something. And it should! It should cost you some comfort, some money, some pride. The changes we’re making have cost us all of these, and I’m fine with it. 

I should probably say the things I’m proud of, too. I’m proud to say that we buck the paternalistic standard of “paying a person’s bills” and just give them the money. It means a lot for a person’s pride and sense of self to allow them to make their own financial decisions and is often the boost people need in life. It’s not bad that 28% of our employees identified as BIPOC and last year 41% of our grant recipients identified as BIPOC, but we also know we can do better.

 

 

Moving Forward

All of the work that our SBC and non-profit has to do in the next 12 months is to live up to our core values. We will keep you updated on how we’re doing with regular blog posts and interactive IG lives with me and our executive director, Jesse Ross.

Core Value: Improvement Over Perfection

In June 2020, our staff began participating in ongoing diversity and inclusion evaluations and training led by Black individuals (shout out to Mr. Jesse Ross and The Woke Coach Seena Hodges!) and developing a comprehensive set of benchmarks for our company.

We are also evaluating our pricing structure to make sure our products are accessible to a wide range of people (we first lowered our retail prices in 2019 and offer payment plans for our e-courses).

Core Value: Empathy Over Pity

In May 2020, we established a specific fund for Black individuals living in North Minneapolis.

Core Value: Action Over Intention

In July 2020, we implemented a $15/hour minimum wage for all part-time employees. 

We are also establishing benefits for both part-time and full-time employees effective September 2020. So many of our grant beneficiaries are struggling because they lack health care coverage, so how can we not offer this to our employees? Financial insecurity is a huge issue in this country, so how can we not figure out how to offer a 401k plan with matching? Everyone needs life insurance! You get it. 

Core Value: Empowerment Over Inspiration

We will continue to offer unrestricted financial grants to folks, because they know how the funds can best be used in their lives.

Core Value: Equity Over Equality

We will be developing more content with BIPOC individuals to help establish them as content creators and build wealth. Our June 2020 Still Kickin Sessions were led by Black educators, and a new project is launching in early 2021 featuring Black voices. On the nonprofit side, we are being more proactive about reaching out and giving grants to communities and individuals who are not necessarily aware Still Kickin exists.

Doing It Right

All of these changes mean increasing the cost of doing business... in a world where in-person events are canceled for the foreseeable future and retail sales are tanking. We have absolutely felt the effects of COVID-19 on our cash flow and made these decisions with the financial realities of our world in mind. In fact, it means adding $12K to our monthly expenses for our SBC, which will bear all of the risk to protect the non-profit. 

My grandpa used to say that anything worth doing is worth doing right. At the time, I truly did not care about stacking a pile of bricks with precise care when I was supposed to be spending a leisurely week with my grandparents. But GRANDPA, I GET IT NOW!

What I — we — are saying with these changes is this: We are going to do business the right way, even if it means going out of business.

Here’s to 5 more years. Hopefully.

XO,

Nora