Sheryl visiting Carnation Learning Center in Bangalore.

One phone call can make an exciting change in your life. Ten years ago, my Hyderabad expat friend, Linda Floyd, asked to schedule a phone call. Since our family moved back to California from India, Linda and I had kept in touch. Wings School for Girls had opened its doors and it was exciting to see the hope in the students’ faces. Her request couldn’t have come at a better time. After years as a clinical social worker in healthcare, I ventured out into private practice. A year later, my practice was not booming and I felt like a failure. I needed a career self esteem boost and a new direction to energize me. My romanticized memory of that call is us blurting out at the same time, “Let’s start a nonprofit to fundraise for Wings!”

I flew up to Seattle and we hammered out founding documents. Board selection was critical. I knew the perfect person for treasurer, Mallika Kohli, who trained as an accountant in both the U.S. and India. She said yes and our founding board was established. Later, Nita Talwar joined and brought her steady and calm presence (we can be a feisty bunch). We became the Executive Committee, collaboratively running the Kiran Anjali Project. It is more than a professional relationship. It is a sisterhood that has supported me through the ups and downs of life and running a nonprofit.

I never imagined the lessons that I would learn working with The Kiran Anjali Project. In retrospect, I was very naïve about what it takes to be successful in the nonprofit industry. I am wiser now and eager to share ten things I have learned over ten years:

  1. Nonprofits are a business. We watch the bottom line, plan events, and do a lot of administrative work to keep the organization in good standing with donors and regulatory agencies. In my naiveté, I thought we would open our doors and the checks would start flying in. Every dollar we earn has hours of sweat equity attached.
  2. It is a competitive industry. There are thousands of nonprofits working in India, all marketing to a limited number of interested donors. Defining ourselves as distinct in the sea of nonprofits was necessary. We are a “boutique” nonprofit, intentionally small with a focus on quality programs and personal service to donors and partner projects. We are proud that we support destitute children from preschool through 12th
  3. It’s easy to get sucked into the buzzwords. “Scalable,” “replicable,” “sustainable,” oh my! International nonprofits do good work in India. But if you look closely at some of the numbers, it is a drop in a bucket of need. The question is how big of an impact does saying you help 300,000 children with US$500 per school really make? Big life changing impact is fully funding a child’s education for 12+ years even if it is 300 rather than 300,000.
  4. Passion is your friend. A passion for your work is essential. The knowledge that you are making a difference for some of the world’s most vulnerable children is the payment. Our Executive Committee works 10-30 hours a week for FREE, sometimes giving up higher paying opportunities to be able to work for the Kiran Anjali Project.
  5. Burnout is your foe. Your tribe is the safety net. The long hours and endless amount of work as a volunteer can set you up for burnout. The governing board has been my tribe. We bounce ideas, troubleshoot, vent, coach, nurture and watch for signs of burnout. We take turns giving each other breaks and dividing the workload when necessary.
  6. It costs money to run a nonprofit. A 7% administrative cost and a bare minimum event cost is a tough standard. Donors are impressed. But it comes at a cost of taxing the Executive Committee and sometimes a lack of efficiency. At some point, for all concerned, we will have to invest in a PAID executive director. We trust our supporters will understand when that time comes.
  7. Hello! Our partner programs don’t always need my advice. The do-gooder social worker in me had tons of ideas on how to improve service at our partner programs. Guess what? They didn’t always want or need my input. Being culturally sensitive means respecting those differences. I have learned to stand down and listen. However, some of the best outcomes have been a collaboration of ideas.
  8. Hello again! It is sometimes challenging to work in India. Everything is different in India. I have learned to not get too tied up in knots when it doesn’t go as planned.
  9. Walking in our partner project manager’s shoes is humbling and heartwarming. When you listen to what they encounter every day, it is staggering. The need is endless and resources are limited. They work with families that are plagued with addiction, illness, violence, and severe mental health conditions, in addition to extreme poverty. Yet most manage to get their child to school every day in the hope they will have a better life. Rather than getting lost in the tragedy, the managers look for the ample signs of progress: healthy kids, top scorers, graduates, the brave, and more.
  10. Lastly, donors make it all happen. Whether it is proceeds from a Girl Scout bake sale or a check written with many zeros, we are grateful for the support. Beyond the financial support, you trusted us and have faith in our vision. Sometimes it is that faith that carries us and helps us continue the work. Together, we celebrate ten years of helping vulnerable children and set our sights on the next decade of lessons and transforming lives!