An Unexpected Passion
For five Millennials, nonprofit work became a surprise dream job.
By Taylor Soule
A volunteer embraces a grinning child in a brochure photo. Inside, “Fun Facts” provide a peek into a nonprofit’s now-global impact. It all looks so … carefree, even perfect.
Before the tender snapshot made it to the glossy brochure, though, a small group of people gathered in an office. They dreamed. They did paperwork. They wrote a plan. They dreamed some more. And finally, months — sometimes years — later, they launched a nonprofit, knowing more paperwork, more planning and more dreaming awaited them.
Nonprofit work doesn’t guarantee glitz or fame, but for a growing number of people, it’s a dream job. Nearly 1.6 million nonprofits registered with the IRS in 2011, according to the Urban Institute; a growth of 21.5 percent since 2001. Millennials are playing a big role in that growth. Think Mag caught up with four Millennial nonprofit founders to learn their motivation, goals and teamwork strategies.
Severine von Tscharner Fleming, 32:
While in college at the University of California-Berkeley, Severine von Tscharner Fleming had a lot on her mind. Beyond organizing fellow agriculture activists, she farmed on campus and connected with the local agriculture community. In between all of that, Fleming studied conservation and ecology.
For Fleming, now 32, it’s almost comical that nonprofit work wasn’t on her mind until much later. Today, she’s the founder of four nonprofit organizations dedicated to improving American agriculture: Farm Hack, National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC), Greenhorns and the Agrarian Trust. Though they focus on a variety of challenges faced by modern farmers, each organization champions the power of community.
“Each of them offer a slightly different approach, but they all offer a community; a kind of constituent network that drives the work, informs the work and manages what is the work,” Fleming said. “I would say, beyond any of the other successes, it’s having each other that has really driven the most change; that sense of our collective power and our connection.”
Fleming and the NYFC have changed the economic environment for up-and-coming farmers. Before the NYFC, young farmers lacked the support and resources necessary to launch an independent agriculture business. Today, the organization works to lower the price of land and promote independent family farming. For Fleming, each element of the NYFC’s work revolves around a single goal.
“I would love to see us double and triple the entry rate of new growers into American agriculture,” Fleming said. “I think you always think that the ideal outcome of an organization is that the organization is no longer needed; that we have such success with young farmers, the demographics have stabilized in agriculture and we’re far more sustainable.”
George Srour, 30:
The numbers reveal the impact of Building Tomorrow, an organization devoted to improving education in Uganda: classroom space built for 3,000 students, 12 schools opened and 200,000 hours of construction work completed by volunteers.
For Building Tomorrow founder George Srour, the numbers trigger a mixed reaction.
“It feels a little disappointing since you always want to do more,” Srour said. “I think there’s definitely something good there, for sure, but there’s a desire on the part of everyone on our team here to be able to achieve more than that.”
That desire to achieve more has motivated Srour since he interned for the United Nations World Food Program while studying at the College of William and Mary. As Srour learned about programs that provide children with food in exchange for attending school, he decided to focus his efforts on Uganda, a country defined by youth.
Children under 15 make up 48.7 percent of the nation’s population, according to the Central Intelligence Agency. Many of those kids’ idea of school is nothing more than a cramped, rundown building — or even the shade beneath a tree.
“It’s the youngest country in the world,” Srour said.
That need led Srour to create Ugandan and American teams working together to build 12 10-room schools. Each school is equipped with seven classrooms, a library, restrooms and meeting and recreation spaces.
The numbers provide a sense of progress and a never-ending challenge for Srour. But in nine years at Building Tomorrow’s helm, he’s discovered other ways to define success.
“It’s being able to try to measure success in a number of different ways, be it through our staff and the things that they’re able to achieve, the things that they’re able to do or, obviously, knowing and seeing students who are able to succeed and get an education who wouldn’t have otherwise had the chance,” Srour said.
Garrett Neiman, 25:
Life after college looked pretty good for Garrett Neiman. He had accepted a job at a major global management-consulting firm in New York City during his senior year at Stanford University. He had extensive community involvement and “nonprofit founder” on his resume.
But he later declined the job at McKinsey & Company — putting “CollegeSpring founder” on his resume wasn’t why he created the nonprofit organization. So when a donor took a risk and invested in CollegeSpring, Neiman took a risk of his own. He made nonprofit work his career. Today, CollegeSpring provides SAT tutoring services for low-income students in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.
“We’ve focused on two regions because we’ve wanted to make sure that our business model is sustainable and scalable before we extend our reach further,” Neiman said.
That goal will become a reality when the organization launches a program in New York City in the fall of 2014.
In the six years since Neiman and co-founder Jessica Perez wrote the organization’s business plan he’s had to hone his management skills. “I have had to grow as a leader incredibly quickly to keep pace with CollegeSpring’s growth,” Neiman said.
CollegeSpring’s growth translated into student growth — in terms of their SAT scores and most importantly, their confidence. Since its founding in 2008, CollegeSpring tutors have helped more than 5,000 high school students boost their SAT scores an average of 180 points. For Neiman, though, the stories are more powerful than the statistics.
“When we first started CollegeSpring, I personally tutored students alongside the other staff,” Neiman said. “One of the students in my first tutoring group, Kym Alvarez, also returned to tutor with us the next summer. This past June, she graduated from UCLA with a degree in environmental science. Seeing the students we serve graduate not only from high school but also from college is incredibly exciting.”
Elie Lowenfeld, 26:
When floodwater ravaged Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in June 2008, it wasn’t the floating debris or submerged homes that caught New York University student Elie Lowenfeld’s attention. It was the Midwestern attitude.
“It was very impressive for me to see the way that Midwesterners just pick up,” Lowenfeld said. “They start to clean up. They start to remove all the debris, and they’re just going to do it by themselves until either it’s finished or somebody else shows up to help them. It was definitely an eye-opening experience to see people just start going, and also, it was a great opportunity to be able to be the person to help them get closer to finishing. That was really inspiring.”
While working with AmeriCorps, Lowenfeld gathered his college friends to help the Cedar Rapids community rebuild after the flood.
That experience motivated him to create the Jewish Disaster Relief Corps (JDRC). The organization mobilizes Jewish students for week-long service-learning trips in disaster-stricken areas.
Lowenfeld founded the JDRC in humble fashion, making phone calls in the library and his dorm room between classes. Meanwhile, he clung to a key belief:
“What I’m doing is actually going to happen, even if I’m making some phone calls in the library after class,” Lowenfeld said. “The motivation is definitely difficult. Feeling like you’re doing something real is tough, especially before you see things actually happen.”
The impact of the JDRC felt particularly real in January, when Lowenfeld hired a new executive director and handed off the organization he founded. Though he doesn’t work full-time at the JDRC anymore, Lowenfeld maintains his high expectations for the organization.
“I’d like to see this be a place where people who are just really excited and are going to work really hard have the opportunity to run with something,” Lowenfeld said. “Since the need in a disaster is so great, the opportunity to do something is so great.”
Cole Winarick, 22:
Cole Winarick couldn’t take the negativity any more. The grim diagnoses, the pessimistic physicians, the incessant remark, “You’ll be in my prayers” — all of it.
That’s when the then-18-year-old University of Delaware freshman launched the Patient 9 Foundation, a nonprofit that encourages people to practice ‘safe sun’ — wear sunscreen, monitor moles and avoid tanning beds. Winarick’s father, Ron, was diagnosed with melanoma in March 2008. Though his father showed remarkable progress in 2010, an MRI that fall revealed the cancer had spread to his brain. Ron Winarick died in June 2011.
Faced with the pressure of a college transition and his father’s deteriorating condition, Winarick needed something — anything — positive.
“I wanted to go home and at least cherish the time that I had with my family in a positive manner,” Winarick said. “I needed to find this light at the end of the tunnel.”
The Patient 9 Foundation provided that much-needed optimism. Personal healing motivated Winarick at first, but he quickly abandoned personal incentives in favor of educating others.
“I just did it for myself, just to figure out how to shed light on a poor situation, but after somebody had came up to me and told me how much my story motivated them and inspired them, as an 18-year-old, it became entirely selfless,” Winarick said.
Though he’s moving from Delaware to California when he graduates from college in May, Winarick said the future of Patient 9 is hardly in flux.
With his Sigma Chi fraternity brothers ready to take the helm on the East Coast and the resolve to share his story on the West Coast, Winarick is determined to reach more people than ever.
“We are looking to do something that sparks people’s interest that does not scream, ‘Donate to cancer.’ That’s one of the big things I’m trying to grasp on the college campus,” Winarick said. “Maybe people care, but they’re not going to step forward. If I did an event that people enjoyed regardless of what the cause was, and then at the end, they were like, ‘Wow, I had fun, and I was able to raise all this money for a cancer foundation.’”
Photos courtesy of Severine von Tscharner Fleming, George Srour, Garrett Neiman, Elie Lowenfeld and Cole Winarick.
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