Taking your nonprofit to the next level: An interview with Molly Ola Pinney

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Editor's Note: This interview originally appeared on the Wild Woman Fundraising website and is excerpted with permission. You can read the full interview here.

Mazarine Treyz: Hey, everybody. Thanks so much for being here. This is Mazarine Treyz of Wild Woman Fundraising and today I am chatting with one of our speakers at the Next Level Fundraising Conference, taking place April 4th-5th 2016, Molly Ola Pinney who is the founder and the CEO of the Global Autism Project. Molly, thank you so much for being here.

Molly Ola Pinney: Thank you. I’m really excited to be here.

MT: I’m excited also, because you’re going to be talking about the secrets of going from $30K to $500K in your nonprofit budget. So before we get started, who are you and what do you do?

MO: Sure. My name is Molly Ola Pinney. I am the founder and CEO of the Global Autism Project. I founded the Global Autism Project 12 years ago to provide training to teachers to provide services for people with autism in our own community. I think a really important piece of what we do is we do provide sustainable training that actually builds capacity in these parts of the world.

MT: Wow. So with that said, you haven’t always been this successful with your nonprofit, and in the beginning you were struggling to find the funding that you needed to keep going and to expand your program. So what did you do for the first seven, eight years of your nonprofit’s life?

MO: Yeah, absolutely. You know, I don’t think I’ll ever forget my first call with you, Mazarine. You said, “You really have done amazing work. I’m really so impressed.” And I thought, “Really?” I think that’s indicative of how we think as founders of a nonprofit, is that we sort of get bogged down in thinking I haven’t been successful.

You know, you and I have talked about it before. You kind of get in this vicious cycle and you want to do more. You want the organization to grow. You know how important it is. I tell people today who come in and are wildly impressed by everything we’ve accomplished that the first eight years we really just kind of figured it out. I sort of describe it as falling flat on my face and just trying, trying, trying these things, seeing what stuck. We did okay, certainly. The beauty, I think, of our model is that there was so much training involved that I was able – and this ended up being not a great thing, as I’m sure many of you will relate - to provide all the training and do the work pretty much as a one woman, two women, three women army. Myself and volunteers. So what that was doing, though, was it was really keeping us small. Then obviously we made some shifts in the last few years.

MT: You told me when we first started talking that you were at $30,000 a year or something like that at your nonprofit?

MO: Yeah. It was a number of years ago, and we were doing about $30,000, $40,000 a year. So while that felt like a lot of money compared to what I ever had, that was not a lot of money when it comes to running a full-fledged organization. Especially one that provides training internationally.

MT: Right, exactly. But you weren’t understanding what it would take to get to the next phase.

MO: Yeah, I really had no idea. It was a combination of figuring out a number of things. One, really getting smarter about our model. Two, really a mindset shift. I think I had this mindset that was just – I felt like there was something noble about not being paid. I felt like there was something really lovely, really beautiful about how everyone here is a volunteer. What I didn’t realize is that when everyone is a volunteer, it’s not a priority for anyone but you as the founder. I think that was kind of a harsh reality. We had amazing volunteers, but of course they have their families. They have paying jobs. I think the thing is, people love their job and they’ll be here and they’re here for the passion. But if you’ll not paying them, they’ll leave. They have to. So it took me a while to kind of figure that out and to kind of get out of the mindset of this being a fully volunteer-run organization. I remember saying that with pride, almost. Like, oh, we’re all volunteers. Well, what that means is nobody works here. What that means is that our work is not nearly as efficient or effective as it is today now that we do have paid staff members.

MT: What is your budget today, now that you’ve shifted your mindset?

MO: So we’re going to close out this year around $400,000 and then for next year, we’re looking at having $1 million budget based on what we know is coming in that we have created that comes in relatively automatically, and based on some new programs that we’re introducing. We’ve never used major donors before and got to that $400,000. We have never received grant money, save for one family foundation, a family I grew up with. And we never had monthly giving. So in 2016, we’re actually rolling out monthly giving, which we’ve already started. By the way, we’re up to about $2,500 a month with our monthly giving that we started.

MT: Wow.

MO: Yeah, right? Celebrate that. $30,000 will be coming from this. Celebrate that. A lot went into it. The goal is $10K monthly. We’re up to $2,500. We’re really excited about that. With the major donors, we’ve really started figuring out how we do that. We’re using some technology to identify key prospects. And then the grant writing. We’re leveraging some great volunteer efforts to get some grants out there. So we’ve got a lot of great stuff happening to grow that budget to the $1 million. It’s honestly a little bit of a conservative estimate. We’re sort of like, well, we know we can hit $1 million. But what else can we do? So it’s very exciting.

MT: Wow, I am so impressed. So what are you teaching at the Next Level Conference in 2016?

MO: Well, I am super excited. Thank you so much for inviting me to participate in this. I am teaching something that I am so wildly passionate about, and it’s really the mindset of being a CEO and founder. What the heck do I mean by that? What I mean by that is how do you really, truly believe and step into loving the organization that you know you can run? From the moment I conceived the Global Autism Project, it was called the Global Autism Project. That was not a small vision. What I’m really looking forward to teaching is how to – I think getting to the next level is probably the most appropriate name possible. I won’t take it for myself. I’ll let you call the conference that.

But really, how do you get to that next level? How do you do that? What does it take? It's practical skills, right? We talked about some of those programs that we’re introducing. I’m so excited to share some of the lessons we’ve learned through those. But also, what is the inner game? How do you really step up and become that nonprofit founder, CEO, executive director. You call it what you want. I call it CEO because that’s who I am. How do you really step up and step into that? Because really, when you do that, when you prepare yourself and you’re able to bring your organization to the next level, I get goose bumps thinking about what the Global Autism Project can accomplish as a bigger organization, or what anyone else’s organization can accomplish. There is such a need for this work in this world, and I think too many organizations are too comfortable playing small right now. So that’s really what I’m looking forward to teaching. I’m so excited about it.

MT: I love that you’re teaching this mindset shift. Some of our listeners who are CEOs and founders are maybe struggling to raise the money they need to raise to do their work. What do you have to say to them?

MO: Well, a few things. Many things. I’ll save some of it for the talk, but in a way I can’t help myself. You know, I think the main thing is if you’re struggling with something you don’t know, and the thing that makes this extraordinarily challenging is that you don’t know what you don’t know. Take a look at everything that you’re doing and figure out what’s working. What’s not working? We did end up coming up with a fairly successful fundraiser where we were kayaking, and it was a fun event and it was nationwide. That made us some real money. That helped us break six figures, for sure. But was it our mission? No. Was it sustainable? No. Was it scalable? Kind of.

You know, so it’s like we actually had to scrap what was the most successful thing we were doing at that point. Right? We thought, let’s get really serious. What is going to make us the most money and be mission related? So I think that that’s step one. One, you don’t know what you don’t know. So be open to learning. Be open to hearing feedback on it. Be open to evaluating it. This kayaking event, this is my little baby. I loved it. But at the end of the day, it was not the most practical thing. So I think that is part one.

The other thing is I would encourage you to really connect with who you serve and why you’re here. Really connect with that. I think there were several things that were kind of a turning point for the Global Autism Project, one of which was me being diagnosed with Lyme disease and not having as much energy as I wanted, and really just connecting with who I was and why I was here and how I was going to use my energy that was limited, and what was really important. I think when you can just bring it back to the people you’re serving and why you’re here, every single person who has started an organization like this, who has had this vision – every single one has a beautiful story. A moment in time that just completely galvanized you and said, you know what, this is what I’m doing. I think it’s important to circle back to that.

I know you were here in my office, I don’t know if you saw there was a picture on my desk. It’s a pretty worn out picture, and it’s a kid looking me in the eye. We worked with him for a while, and we teach [the kids] to use eye contact. But I keep that picture on my desk because I remember it was a particularly frustrating day, and like everyone has a beautiful story, everyone has frustrations. I went outside and this kid, I kind of picked...and he just took my face and looked me in the eye, and somebody just happened to get a picture of it, and it’s like, that picture and that moment brings me back to this organization in a way that just... It’s so easy, I think, when you’re a founder and CEO of the organization to get kind of bogged down with details, but I can just look at that picture and come right back. I think that is what I encourage everybody to do, to connect with why you’re here and who you’re serving, and from there think about how you can make changes to your organization.

Click here to register now for the Next Level Fundraising Conference. It’s virtual, every session is recorded, and you will have access to all of the recordings after the conference is over!

Mazarine Treyz is the author of "Get the Job! Your Fundraising Career Empowerment Guide." Her popular blog has 50,000 monthly readers. Read more at wildwomanfundraising.com. Join her at the Nexxt Level Fundraising Conference.

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