We all have dreams.
“I’m going to write a book someday.”
“I want to own a vacation property.”
“I’m going to start my own business and be my own boss.”
But bringing those dreams into reality is a whole different story. I may know one author for every 50 friends who have told me they would like to write a book. And sadly, I have too many friends who end up failing in their entrepreneurial ventures, rather than successfully transitioning to a viable business.
Being a social entrepreneur is not much different. I have many friends who desire to start a community work of some kind, whether to help the homeless, provide safe haven for youth, initiate a drug and alcohol recovery program or build low-income housing. As the co-founder of 2 charities that have done all of these ministries and more, I’ve learned a few things along the way that can help to make your dream a reality.
1. Get support.
And I don’t mean financially. You need a team around you to encourage, advise and assist. I’m not talking about a board of directors, but a support team that buys into your vision and you can rely on when times get tough. Because times will get tough! For me, it was my husband and co-founder, along with a handful of helpers.
2. Find a mentor.
You need to work with someone who has walked this road before you. There is no better way to avoid pitfalls, and seek solutions to the daily conundrums that come up. Nowadays, you don't have to be in the same city as your mentor. With SKYPE, email and text messaging, advice, prayer, encouragement and support is minutes away.
3. Do a needs assessment.
You don’t want to come in as the grand competitor. You want to come in as a collaborator, who can help fill in the gaps within the community. In our first mission plant, there was already an excellent faith based soup kitchen that served supper. We weren’t about to reinvent the wheel, and so we opened a drop in centre that served lunch. As the years progressed, we acquired the soup kitchen, and we were so much stronger together.
4. Build your board of directors.
The social entrepreneur gets to build his own board, which then acts as your boss, so choose wisely. Ideally, you need a cross-section of men and women in various roles and ages, particularly business people. Set up a policy board, not a working board. Get volunteers to do the work. Your board needs to be about the big governance decisions. Give yourself broad leeway for board member numbers, to account for growth. I suggest 3-13. To fill out your government documents, you will need a board president (or chair, in some provinces.) If you are not getting paid, you can be the chair.
5. Start with your administrative documents.
Founders are servers with huge hearts. It’s much more fun to start serving meals to the homeless, than to fill out your government forms to get organized and structured. But these forms are key to your sustainability, providing you your name, as well as the ability to issue income tax receipts to your donors. There will be provincial and federal forms to fill out. Start with the provincial documents to become incorporated. Every province is different, so make sure they know your plan is to operate as a registered charity with the federal government. These documents take an average of 7 months to be approved, and you will likely have one or two re-write requests from Revenue Canada. To avoid this, carefully read their website, as it’s loaded with tips and support.
6. Secure your facility.
People don’t buy into ideas, they buy into action. Sure, the visionary can sell snow to a Canadian in winter, but they have to have the snow! And so, people will nod and give you pats on the back, and maybe donate food, or some in kind products, but the cold hard cash comes only after you have something going on. Don’t forget to get insurance--particularly liability insurance. This is something that your board of directors will need to approve as it is a matter of risk.
7. Prepare to make great sacrifice.
For the first two years of both of our mission start ups, we did not take a salary. We cashed in our RRSP’s, lived off of donations of food, and slept for free at the Mission in Regina, Saskatchewan. We use dour “sending package”, ate at the Mission and took a weekend caretaking job to make ends meet in Halifax, Nova Scotia. You will need a creative way to survive during those first couple of years.
Bringing your dream from vision to reality is not an easy task, but setting yourself up from the start, to do things right and in order, are key. Once step 7 has arrived, you will be running from early morning until the evening collapse, so be sure you tackle these during the initial slow season. Making our communities and country stronger by serving is a privilege. To those of you who are considering this incredible social venture, keep faith, and be sure of your call. And for those of you who support these important works, we thank you for being part of the solution. We are stronger together.
Michelle Porter is the Co-Founder of two Canadian rescue missions. She currently resides in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where she serves as the Executive Director of Souls Harbour RESCUE Misison. When she isn’t helping the homeless, she’s enjoying her oceanside Nova Scotia cottage in Canada’s Ocean Playground. You can find her on her blog at www.MissionMusings.com.