Sarah Evans, founder and executive director of Well Aware, an Austin-based non-profit that funds and implements clean water systems for impoverished communities in Africa, ventured into the non-profit world without any previous experience in running a non-profit. After years of work and smart planning, she has recently been named Toyota’s Mother of Invention, has been chosen as a finalist twice in the Austin Under 40 awards, and was chosen as a 2016 Austin Business Journal Profiles in Power Finalist. After all the lessons she’s learned through this journey, Sarah shared with EBW2020 her top tips for an up-and-coming philanthropist.
Running a Non-Profit isn’t 100% Passion Work
The most important thing to understand about running a non-profit is not just passion work. In fact, Sarah states that running a non-profit isn’t too much different than running a business because you have to manage a team, create budgets, and forecast. Like most careers, running a non-profit isn’t about doing exactly what you want to do all the time. While she would love to be in the field all the time climbing water tanks and hugging children, actually going to Africa and installing the wells makes up a small portion of time Sarah spends on this non-profit. However, the small time fundraising and dealing with traditional business problems make the time spent in the field doing passion work possible.
Sarah advises other non-profits to not to try to scale to quickly and to make sure their fundraising plan and forecast is solid before trying to scale on the program side. “I’ve seen other partner non-profits not be careful in that regard and it’s been bad for them and sometimes it closes their operations doors”. She also advises non-profits to be aware of the “overhead myth” and to not sacrifice investing in their team in order to retain very low overhead. While she did not pay herself for the first 3 years and started her salary at $600 a month with the occasionally raise, she made sure to invest in her team so that they are able to retain the same passion for the non-profit without the risk of burning out.
Respect the People You Serve
Building, maintaining, and respecting the relationships with the people your non-profit helps is essential. Well Aware is strongly against “voluntourism”, a new trend where individuals travel to developing countries to carry out volunteer work that is often criticized for being more about taking pictures for social media and padding resumes than actually helping people. Sarah sees volunteering as not only disrespectful for to the community they are serving, but as a disservice to international non-profits because a true and lasting international charity is a long term commitment. When Well Aware recently started doing large organized trips, they chose people who has previous philanthropy travel experience and held many trainings how to treat the community with respect before approving them for the trip.
Sarah loves to brag about her team and states that recruiting talented, intelligent, and passion people, and keeping them around for advice, help, and work is her strongest skill. “I’ve never been shy about asking people how do I read this budget’ or about how I can be a better public speaker or present this better, some teach me how to make this powerpoint better. I have not been shy about asking people for help and being very gracious and grateful as well.”
Don’t be Afraid of Being the Face of Your Non-Profit
For international non-profits, since the beneficiary is so far away from the people donating to it, there has to be a face of the organizations to tell their stories and make people feel like they’re there with the people the non-profit is serving. However, when Well Aware first began Sarah resisted being the face of the non-profit and instead focused made the face of Well Aware about the team and the board behind it. After seeking help from Brenda Thompson PR firm, Brenda’s advice changed Sarah’s mind. “She was shaking me telling me “look, understand that doing this means that more of those kids is going to have clean water. Every time that you have to dress up on stage or get on an airplane know that it means more clean water for those kids’ so she helped me shift my perspective.”
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