Many Driven to nonprofit work by personal experience

December 24, 2007  |  Posted by Chrissy Kadleck, Crain's Cleveland Business

Smiles and laughter are easier to come by in some pediatric hospitals thanks to a wishful spark from Allison Clarke, whose young son Quinn was treated for cancer at Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital.

"One of his little buddies at the hospital died," said Ms. Clarke, whose son finished treatment in 2001 and is considered cured. "When I heard, we were in the playroom, and I thought it would have been nice to have a photograph of him."

The Chagrin Falls resident, along with her husband Kip, went on to establish Flashes of Hope, a nonprofit organization that offers free, professional portraits of children fighting cancer and other life-threatening diseases. Since its first photo shoot at Rainbow in 2001, Flashes of Hope has become a national nonprofit with 19 chapters across the country. It photographs about 2,500 children annually.

"It's something you wouldn't know there was a need for had you not been through the experience yourself," Ms. Clarke said.

A powerful personal experience such as Ms. Clarke's often is the seed from which entrepreneurs grow nonprofit organizations, said Stuart Mendel, co-director of the Center for Nonprofit Policy and Practice at the Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University. For many who harness the passion and drive to found nonprofits, the cause ultimately becomes their life's work, Dr. Mendel said.

Giving it your all

Take Betsie Norris, whose own journey of finding her birth parents led her in 1988 to establish Adoption Network Cleveland.

"Through my search and reunion, I became aware that there were a lot of issues relating to adoption that weren't being addressed anywhere,” said Ms. Norris, who created the nonprofit as an education, support and advocacy organization for those touched by adoption.

"I was 28 when I started the network. I was single. I didn't have a child, so I could really put my all into it, and that's really what it took for those first several years," she said.

While the motivation to make society a better place cannot be underestimated, neither can the struggles that come along with establishing and running a nonprofit.

"If you have a choice of starting a nonprofit and starting a business, it's far, far easier to start a business," said Dr. Mendel, whose center was founded to support and foster the health of the nonprofit sector in Cleveland.

Ms. Norris operated Adoption Network out of her home during its early years as she balanced her “volunteer” efforts as head of the nonprofit and her paying full-time job as a nurse.

It’s a struggle to which Ms. Clarke can relate. Nicknamed the “net loss” by her banker husband, Flashes of Hope requires Ms. Clarke to pay a baby sitter so she can go to a job five days a week where she doesn’t take a salary.

Likewise, in the two years since establishing PetFix Northeast Ohio " a mobile spay and neuter program for pets of low-income people " founders Timy Sullivan and Drs. Sarah Kirk and Megan Barrett Volpe have had to rein themselves in and “stick to our mission and stick to our focus.”

“For me, I was in the trenches, so to speak, so I was seeing the issue of pet overpopulation right in my face every single day. It’s very easy to want to do more,” said Dr. Volpe, who is on the staff of the Geauga Humane Society’s Rescue Village in Russell Township.

Support network

A nonprofit not only needs a business plan and financing "big enough challenges for most fledgling startups " but also five to seven people who are moved into action by the mission of the organization.

“You’ve got to persuade board members to buy into your vision, help you do work, create resources, donate their time, and that’s before you even deliver a product,” Dr. Mendel said.

For Ms. Norris, the past 20 years with the Adoption Network have been a continual process of letting go.

“At first I did everything. Even now, almost everything within the organization that anybody is doing, I at one point did,” she said. “If I had a lot of ego involved and I wanted it to be my way or no way, it would not work. It’s not easy sometimes, but my heart is in it and my passion is there.”

Money also is a major challenge for new nonprofits that are unable to show a trail of success, said Flashes of Hope’s Ms. Clarke. So when Ms. Clarke’s organization was ready to grow beyond its Cleveland borders, it did a pilot study in Atlanta where a volunteer chapter director worked from home setting up photo shoots and distributing free packages to families.

She said asking for money has never been her strong suit. With a new executive director who was hired in October, she now can focus her energy on what she does best.

“It’s very easy for me to go speak and to talk very passionately about why we are doing what we are doing, but I can’t just say, ‘I want $20,000,’” Ms. Clarke said.

In the end, nonprofits are judged by a different standard than the average business, Dr. Mendel said.

“In terms of what a nonprofit does, it provides a service to a community that is not being provided,” he said. “You could say that is true as a business, but a business is really measured by its profitability. A nonprofit is really measured by the contribution it makes to society.”

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