Knowing When it's Time to Shut Down Your Nonprofit

Why I Closed Down a Successful Nonprofit in its Prime

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THANANIT SUNTIVIRIYANON

This is about the rise and closure of iPump.org, Inc., a 501(c)3 charity that provided financial assistance and gave out free diabetes supplies and free insulin pumps to people in need.

This story is about my own experiences that lead me to the decision to shut down a nonprofit I founded, that, by all external observations was thriving -- and it was, only at a personal cost I eventually had to acknowledge.

I want to encourage other women who are running nonprofits not to give up - unless it is time to give up, and if it is time, do so gracefully allowing yourself to be human. 

I want other women to never be ashamed or afraid to ask for help before getting to the point of emotional and financial burnout.  You cannot do it all by yourself so stop trying to.

When The Focus Shifts From Feeling Good About Those You Can Help to Feeling Bad About Those You Cannot Help

Running a nonprofit is hard.  It is hard on your personal finances, your family, and it is hard to you emotionally.  At first, you ride a bit on the high of feeling good about those you are able to help.  Their stories become your stories during dinner conversations.  You fall asleep with a slight smile on your face knowing someone else out there is better off because their needs were met and you got to be a part of that.  But after a while, a terrible thing can happen to non-profiteers without warning -- the focus changes from feeling good about those you did help to worry about those you could not help.

  Their stories then become your obsessions to find some way to help even more and are the cause of insomnia as you lay awake in bed at night worrying about total strangers (second only to wondering how you can attract more donors!)

The demand for free diabetes supplies was endless and I was consumed with helping.

  One night about 2 AM the iPump phone rang and I ran to pick it up; it was a pharmacist calling from another state.  A man was there begging for insulin but could not pay and so the pharmacist looked up assistance programs on the Internet and found iPump and now he wanted to know if I could pay for the man's insulin.  Without hesitation, I said yes and gave him my personal credit card information.  That may sound impulsive, but I have a daughter with type 1 diabetes and having no insulin means certain death -- how could I not care about this stranger on the other end of the phone?  If he died from hyperglycemia or diabetic ketoacidosis it would be on my hands (or so I believed).

I began paying for peoples' insulin and even helped with medical bills relating to diabetes all from my own pocket.  I sent checks for diabetics who needed other medications but who could not afford those either.  I was not rich but had inherited a little money from my mother when she passed from cancer and I felt better spending that money on helping people -- something my mother would have approved of.

I knew all too well that someone with diabetes can die without testing supplies and insulin, and so, month after month, instead of turning people away, I personally paid for their needs waiting for the elusive, generous donor to appear and save the day.

  That donor never came and so, I just kept filling in the gap in the meantime believing at some point someone out there would take notice and care enough to help me help others.

That day never came.

Eventually, seeing so many hard cases took over my own soul and after 5 years, I made the decision, along with the support of my board to dissolve the organization.  Despite some donations from the general public, I had personally donated over $120,000 of my own funds to help others and I just could not afford to do so any longer. One of the iPump's board members also donated $15,000 of his own money and another donated his professional time generously, never once saying he was too busy with his own stuff.  Two other board members were always an email away, but were elusive and never did anything to help other than lend their names to the board.

  My board was also scattered coast-to-coast, which made things a little more challenging because it left me to handle all the day-to-day operations on my own.

Sad Fact:  Donors Don't Want to Pay Salaries, Rent, or Operating Expenses

We were an all volunteer organization and thousands of companies and individuals donated in-kind goods (medical supplies). I never found one single donor who would help with the office rent, shipping costs (shipping supplies to people was expensive, costing as much as $800 a month) and god forbid, any type of salary.

To grow the organization properly, I needed to be able to hire someone to answer phones, emails, review applications and fulfill orders -- things that my children and I had to do without help. I needed help with program development, grant writing, and even someone to simply help me write the hundreds of thank you notes and tax receipts that had to be sent out. 

But grant after grant for salaries and operating expenses was denied, only funding for programs was approved, and those grants, for all the time it took writing them never amounted to more than $500 here and there.  And so, I continued working 100+ hour weeks, seven days a week, never taking a single day off to be sick, or, to be with my own family.  I was so busy with office management, approving applications, calling doctors to confirm prescriptions, and sending supplies that I did not have time for anything, or anyone else.

And that was my fatal mistake. 

I should have put everything on hold, regrouped and called in the troops for help.  Instead, when the economy crashed I found myself talking to desperate people in pharmacies late at night trying to get insulin but who had no money and saying yes to the hospitals, and clinics calling for me for help for their own patients.

In the ended I decided, rather than help individuals, I could keep my organization afloat by bulk shipping supplies to individual clinics throughout the country.  It was faster, and cheaper, and that strategic move enabled me to get iPump through the economic crash.

Nonprofits are Still Businesses and Still Have Business Expenses 

My own experience was that donors often think that nonprofits don't need staff because volunteers magically run them.  They seem to think that if they are willing to send money to your cause that you should supply all the labor for free, otherwise their donations are not really helping someone.

As volunteers slowly burn out, you are left running the whole shebang pretty much on your own.  Without pay. Without time because you have to hold down a real job to pay for the financial shortcomings of the organization. And so, you just work harder until eventually, family and friend cheerleaders who encouraged you, in the beginning, are now are telling you to call it quits. Not because they don't care, but because they can see the price you are paying and you have long since lost all sanity and contact with the real world.

Five Years

In those five years, we made a difference, providing millions of dollars in free insulin pumps and medical supplies to people throughout the U.S. and even provided significant supplies for the Red Cross post hurricane Katrina.  We shipped overseas to help diabetics in areas devastated by Tsunamis.  The majority of supplies we shipped had been donated, but to inventory, warehouse, and ship supplies cost a lot of money that people simply were not willing to donate.  I mean, how glamorous is making a donation to cover UPS expenses?

But balancing a real full-time job (my marketing firm) and raising four kids as a single mom and running what had become a massive all-volunteer nonprofit became too much.  I involved my children, putting them to work, and they did so without complaint, but in order to help other families, I felt like my own was falling apart.

People found me on the Internet and came to my home begging for help. Perhaps that was the turning point for me. The nonprofit had become a beast that felt it owned me.

One Sunday, I answered the door to greet a father, who stood there with his son begging for help.  His son had to walk away from an opportunity to play professional baseball because diabetes had caused severe nerve damage (gastroparesis)  rendering him nearly disabled at the age of 20. He looked like he may have weighed 120 lbs - the poor kid was literally wasting away because shots had failed him and now his body was, too.  He needed a pump to live but had no health insurance.  He was the last child we gave a pump to - his pump came from a donor family whose own one-year-old baby had died and they asked only that the pump goes to help someone else's child.

The man returned with his son, who had gained some weight and was doing better.  He knocked on my door to show me.  And then, to ask, for more help with other stuff.  It was then I realized that the "outsiders" -- those we served, really did not understand the sacrifices we had made, and just expected us to keep making more because that's just what nonprofit people do, right?

My Family First

Through iPump days our own family was facing one crisis after another: my 12-year-old daughter went into kidney failure and required a risky eight-hour surgery to save her life.  Her recovery was painful and long.  Not longer after her surgery I also went into failed health and required a surgery that would take almost a year to recover from and during this time all I could think about was helping diabetics without insulin struggling in their own lives.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to help others or about being passionate about charitable works, but there is something wrong when you are so busy helping others that you can no longer help yourself.

The day I announced I was walking away from iPump my supportive children literally cheered.  They wanted their mom back and I never realized how much I missed my own kids until iPump was off my radar.

I do not regret iPump.  We did amazing things!  But, I also do not regret walking away when I did, and that is the real point of my story.  It's okay to change directions in life.  It's okay to quit one job and work somewhere else.  We end marriages and we move on so why should you feel any shame in closing the chapter of a nonprofit and moving on to something else?

You shouldn't.  There is no shame in trying no matter what the outcome is, as long as you try your best.

A Word to Donors

The volunteer heroes we pillar in nonprofit life are just like you, and me, and are human, too.  They have their own lives, families, and expenses that are often invisible to donors.  There seems to be some unwritten rule in society that says volunteers are old people without anything better to do or noble people who don't have a need to be acknowledged or compensated.  Neither is true.

Nonprofit organizations are businesses just like any other business.  They have expenses and overhead, and for any nonprofit to reach its full potential you need to eventually have paid staff.  You also need office space, phones, email, a marketing budget, and funds for insurance, licenses, and a whole host of expenses that all businesses have.

I encourage you to be one of the rare, elusive donors that, when making a donation simply says "use however it is needed."  I also ask that you consider donating to organizational or direct costs just as important and valuable as sponsoring a particular child, event, or cause. 

The most coveted of all donors are the ones who simply trust the organizations they donate to but supporting the organization itself.  Without the ability to fund the infrastructure, the programs will collapse and help cannot be offered.  So, if you want to do the most good, then donate with the understanding that nonprofits are businesses and without good support, they can go under just like any other business.

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