Would-be nonprofit founders advised to research first, plan later

If you want to make the world a better place, consider not following the lead of Suzanne Lea, founder and CEO of the Las Vegas nonprofit, In12Days.

Or at least ask yourself why before undertaking the tricky business of launching a nonprofit. It’s a venture that some founders spend years running from their own kitchen tables.

Lea, a Summerlin resident, runs her organization out of Cirque Du Soleil office space at 980 Kelly Johnson Drive. The nonprofit works year-round and nationwide, creating often over-the-top, “ring-the-doorbell-and-run” holiday magic and community for bereaved families.

People have called Lea saying they want to start a nonprofit because they’re bored. With only slim odds of success and hard work on the horizon, she said, “You have to believe that you are changing the course of destiny, and it’s your mission to do this.”

Her story began during a snowstorm in 2008. Everything had come to a halt — except for a truck carrying a basket of five doughnuts and five bagels, symbolic of “five golden rings,” from the carol, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

The holiday carbs were dropped mysteriously at the doorstep of newly widowed Lea and her two sons, ages 6 and 9 at the time. The boys had just finished peeling off wet clothes from a romp in the snow. When the doorbell rang, they flew outside, underwear-clad, chasing the mystery truck in a “big cat and mouse game,” Lea said.

The family received mystery gifts for each of the 12 days leading up to Christmas that year, each gift “bigger and more exciting than the last,” Lea recalled. Nothing about it resembled the pity that she’d often received but hadn’t wanted.

“They managed to drive out to us in the middle of the storm when no one else could get through,” she added. “To us, who’d been so alone for a very long time, this show of dedication, in spite of all odds, was very big.”

She founded the Las Vegas-based nonprofit, In12Days, in 2010, using $75,000 of her own money.

Bombings and suicide are among some of the circumstances that have prompted everything from a mountain of 50,000 Dove chocolates to a little boy’s journey to Hoover Dam, where he released a dove with a note attached, asking for a full-ride scholarship to a private school. In that instance, a helicopter promptly flew in, delivering the director of the school and the scholarship.

In 2014, on a $60,000 budget, the organization received $2.3 million in in-kind donations, according to Lea.

In 2016, the nonprofit is set to work with 12 families, with 100 people assigned to each during “ring-and-run season,” in addition to more than 50 year-round volunteers. She’s just getting around now to hiring an office manager.

But Lea, a former live event producer, has paid the price of starting something from nothing. She said she didn’t take a salary for years.

“I was terrified every day,” she said. “I probably worked 22 hours a day for the first three years. I almost killed myself doing it. And then I just worked 18 hours a day for seven days a week. The only thing that would take away the fear was working.

“I can’t tell you how many times I stood there in tears as I was told that I was going to go down crashing in flames and what a fool I was.”

Not that she’d change any of it now. And, these days, she works normal hours.

BE CLEAR IN YOUR MISSION

“I often say not starting a nonprofit at all is the best way to serve,” said Stacey Wedding, founder and chief strategist of Las Vegas-based Professionals in Philanthropy. Her firm works not only with nonprofits but also funders.

“A lot of these funders will tell you that they’re confused about which nonprofits are doing what, specifically, and how they’re different,” she said. “It feels to them like there’s a lot of duplication.”

According to Jeff Landerfelt, deputy secretary of state for commercial recordings in Nevada, 1,830 nonprofits officially formed in the state in fiscal year 2015 — a steady growth upward from 1,451 in fiscal year 2012. Dissolutions have steadily trended downward, according to the paperwork, from 330 in fiscal year 2012 to 284 in fiscal year 2015.

However, some nonprofits may have failed but not officially dissolved.

Wedding thinks the “Wild West spirit” of Nevada — and “wanting to put our mark in the sand in our own unique way” — may be one reason she’s noticed the spurt of more non-active nonprofits here, compared to elsewhere in the nation.

“They get all their paperwork filled out, and then they’re, like, ‘Holy cow, now what do I do?’ ” she observed.

Some questions Wedding poses to those with a nonprofit idea: Do you have a business plan? How are you going to fund your nonprofit? Are you familiar with the laws that relate to nonprofits both on a federal level and locally? What makes you different than Nevada’s 5,000 other nonprofits?

She counsels people to do market research and to partner with existing organizations, rather than starting a new one. That could entail becoming a program of another nonprofit, or finding another to serve as a fiscal sponsor.

FORGET ABOUT MAKING MONEY

If you’re in it to make money, forget it, said April Mastroluca, president of the Las Vegas chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals and executive director of the Nevada chapter of the ALS Association.

“It’s a labor of love, and there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work that people don’t realize has to happen,” she said.

And those who see automatic dollar signs from the Strip should think again.

“Every casino has an area they give to, and if you don’t fit into that funding criteria, it’s very difficult to get money,” Mastroluca said.

But Las Vegas philanthropy has an upside, as well, according to Lea — if the endeavor calls for theatrically wonderful undertakings.

“It’s the perfect petri dish,” she said. “For an entrepreneur in this town, they say, ‘I want to do this thing.’ Other places say, ‘No.’ Vegas says, ‘OK. Do you want some money?’ You’re, like, ‘Yeah.’ And then they go, ‘OK. Do you want some land too?’ ”

Lea’s organization is also gaining a foothold from collaboration with UNLV’s School of Environmental and Public Affairs and Leadership Henderson, a nonprofit under the Henderson Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

Chris Stream, director of the School of Environmental and Public Affairs, advises people with a nonprofit idea to find out who’s already in their field of interest and whether it’s a better bet to simply volunteer.

If someone decides to take the plunge anyway, they need not only a good story to tell funders but also data, budget narrative skills, and the ability to demonstrate performance and infrastructure that backs it all up.

Mastroluca suggests talking to existing organizations in the realm of one’s interest, to be pointed in a good direction. She recommends grant writing resources through the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District and resources available through the Henderson Community Foundation and the Nevada Community Foundation.

Also consider UNLV’s certificate program in nonprofit management, and top that off with advice from an attorney regarding obtaining 501(c)(3) status. There’s also Lea’s way: simply seeking out people she admired with nonprofit skills.

“We’d go to coffee,” she said.

For more information on Lea’s nonprofit, visit in12days.com.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series about starting a nonprofit in Las Vegas. Look for part two, on how to raise funds, in the March 31 View.

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