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Taking Your Nonprofit to the Next Level-Molly Ola Pinney Interview

11 January 2016

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 January 11, 2016
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Molly Pinney Global autism Project

Molly Pinney Global autism ProjectMazarine Treyz: Hey, everybody. Thanks so much for being here. This is Mazarine Treyz of Wild Woman Fundraising and today I am chatting with Molly Ola Pinney who is the founder and the CEO of the Global Autism Project. Molly inspired me to create the Nonprofit Leadership Summit in September 27-29th, 2016 this year. Molly, thank you so much for being here.

Molly Ola Pinney: Thank you. I’m really
excited to be here.

MT: I’m excited also, because you’re going to be talking about the secrets of going from like $30K to $500K in your nonprofit budget. So before we get started, who are you and what do you do?

MO: Sure. My name is Molly Ola Pinney. I am the founder and CEO of the Global Autism Project. I founded the Global Autism Project 12 years ago to provide training to teachers to provide services for people with autism in our own community. I think a really important piece of what we do is we do provide sustainable training that actually builds capacity in these parts of the world.

MT: Wow. So with that said, you haven’t always been this successful with your nonprofit, and in the beginning you were struggling to find the funding that you needed to keep going and to expand your program. So what did you do for the first seven, eight years of your nonprofit’s life?

MO: Yeah, absolutely. You know, I don’t think I’ll ever forget my first call with you, Mazarine. You said, “You really have done amazing work. I’m really so impressed.” And I thought, “Really?” I think that’s indicative of how we think as founders of a nonprofit, is that we sort of get bogged down in the I haven’t been as successful. How can I? You know, you and I have talked about it before. You kind of get in this vicious cycle and you want to do more. You want the organization to grow. You know how important it is. I tell people today who come in and are wildly impressed by everything we’ve accomplished that the first eight years we really just kind of figured it out. I sort of describe it as falling flat on my face and just trying, trying, trying these things, seeing what stuck. We did okay, certainly. The beauty, I think, of our model is that there was so much training involved that I was able – and this ended up being not a great thing, as I’m sure many of you will relate. I was able to provide all the training and do the work pretty much as a one woman, two women, three women army. Myself and volunteers. So what that was doing, though, was it was really keeping us small.

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MT: Yeah. Well, you told me when we first started talking, is that you were like – what was it? $30,000 a year or something like that at your nonprofit?

MO: Yeah. It was a number of years ago, and we were. We were doing about $30,000, $40,000 a year. So while that felt like a lot of money compared to what I ever had, that was not a lot of money when it comes to running a full fledged organization. Especially one that provides training internationally.

MT: Right, exactly. So you were really like, this is not enough money. But you weren’t understanding what it would take to get to the next phase.

MO: Yeah, I really had no idea. It was a combination of figuring out a number of things. One, really getting smarter about our model. Two, really a mindset shift. I think I had this mindset that was just – I felt like there was something noble about not being paid. I felt like there was something really lovely, really beautiful about how everyone here is a volunteer. What I didn’t realize is that when everyone is a volunteer, it’s not a priority for anyone but you as the founder. I think that was kind of a harsh reality. We had amazing volunteers, but of course they have their families. They have paying jobs. I think the thing is, is that people love their job and they’ll be here and they’re here for the passion. But if you’ll not paying them, they’ll leave. They have to. So it took me a while to kind of figure that out and to kind of get out of the mindset of this being a fully run volunteer organization. I remember saying that with pride, almost. Like, oh, we’re all volunteers. Well, what that means is nobody works here. What that means is that our work is not nearly as efficient or effective as it is today now that we do have paid staff members.

MT: Right, and it is so great for your services. We can talk about that in a little bit. But what is your budget today, now that you’ve shifted your mindset?

MO: So we’re going to close out this year around $400,000 and then for next year, we’re looking at having $1 million budget based on what we know is coming in that we have created that comes in relatively automatically, and based on some new programs that we’re introducing. We’ve never used major donors before and gotten to that $400,000. We have never received grant money, save for one family foundation, a family I grew up with. And we never had monthly giving. So in 2016, we’re actually rolling out monthly giving, which we’ve already started. By the way, we’re up to about $2,500 a month with our monthly giving that we started.

MT: Nice. Wow.

MO: Yeah, right? Celebrate that. $30,000 will be coming from this. Celebrate that. A lot went into it. The goal is $10K monthly. We’re up to $2,500. We’re really excited about that. With the major donors, we’ve really started figuring out how we do that. We’re really using some technology to identify key prospects. And then the grant writing. We’re leveraging some great volunteer efforts to get some grants out there. So we’ve got a lot of great stuff happening to grow that budget to the $1 million. It’s honestly a little bit of a conservative estimate. We’re sort of like, well, we know we can hit $1 million. But what else can we do? So it’s very exciting.

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MT: Wow, I am so impressed. So what did you teach at the Next Level Conference in 2016?

MO: Well, I am super excited. Thank you so much for inviting me to participate in this. I am teaching something that I am so wildly passionate about, and it’s really the mindset of being a CEO and founder. What the heck do I mean by that? What I mean by that is how do you really, truly believe and step into loving the organization that you know you can run? From the moment I conceived the Global Autism Project, it was called the Global Autism Project. That was not a small vision. What I’m really looking forward to teaching is how to – I think next level is probably the most appropriate name possible. I won’t take it for myself. I’ll let you call the conference that.

But really, how do you next level? How do you do that? And what does it take? What does it take – the practical skills, right? We talked about some of those programs that we’re introducing. I’m so excited to share some of the lessons we’ve learned through those. But also, what is the inner game? How do you really step up and become that nonprofit founder, CEO, executive director. You call it what you want. I call it CEO because that’s who I am, right? How do you really step up and step into that? Because really, when you do that, when you prepare yourself and you’re able to bring your organization to the next level, I get goose bumps thinking about what the Global Autism Project can accomplish as a bigger organization, or what anyone else’s organization can accomplish. There is such a need for this work in this world, and I think too many organizations are too comfortable playing small right now. So that’s really what I’m looking forward to teaching. I’m so excited about it.

Nonprofit Leadership Summit

MT: You know, speaking of the need, I went to visit you in I think it was September 1st of this last year, and what you said in our meeting shocked me, Molly. You said that there was a Tanzanian newspaper story that someone had sent you of a neighbor who was planning to kill this woman’s autistic son and then the mom overheard the neighbor and then told them about what autism is and how her child just had special needs and that they shouldn’t kill him.

MO: Yes, the neighbors were planning to kill the child, and the mother learned what autism was. So when I learned that they were planning to kill my child, I decided to advocate for autism.

MT: Wow.

MO: You know, the emails that we get every day, I just received an email. This week I received emails from Mongolia, Kurdistan, and South Africa, and they’re some version of this where there’s a child and they have special needs, and there are no services and people don’t know and they don’t understand. I started this organization predicated on two things.

One, the belief that with education comes acceptance and empowerment and we can actually create change for these kids. The other thing is, is that I never believed there was any such thing as good enough for those people. So what our organization does is we actually train professionals around the world to the exact same level that we train professionals here in the U.S. So we actually train them to be board certified behavioral analysts to take it beyond the level of, hey, I’m advocating for my kid and encouraging you not to harm them. But to really take people in these countries to a professional level of excellence where these kids can make strides and they can really advocate. Their parents can advocate and they can advocate. We receive emails like that every day, and I think that’s to this point, Mazarine, right? Because it’s like that’s what happened. That’s what clicked for me.

So whether or not I’m willing to play big or I feel able to play big, or my subconscious mind – we all have it, right? It’s like, who do you think you are? Whether or not that’s present, there’s an entire world of kids who need these services. So I’ve got to figure out how to get the heck out of my own way and get this organization to the point where it is playing big and it is doing what it’s meant to do in this world. So I think that every single person, probably, who attends your conference has a similar thing, right? Like I’ve got to figure out how to get out of my own way so that we can really serve these single mothers or really serve these homeless people or whomever. I think it’s really about who am I going to teach, right? It’s like, how do we put it honestly? I think that’s really a piece of that.

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MT: I agree, and your playing small is only going to help you help less people or animals or whatever you’re helping.

MO: Yeah, absolutely.

MT: I mean, imagine how many people would be dead right now if you hadn’t decided to take this to the next level.

MO: Yes.

MT: It’s hard to know, isn’t it? I mean, there’s no statistics on this. But I can imagine hundreds of people would be dead right now. I can just imagine that. You’ve been doing this for 12 years.

MO: Yeah, we have, and we’ve been so fortunate to partner with some incredible people. I can tell you that everywhere that we work, there’s a similar story of mistreatment, of torture. It runs the gamut. I think the thing to understand is that this isn’t because there are bad people in these kids lives. This is because there are desperate people. This is because there are people who have no idea what to do. They live in communities where there’s no idea what to do, and you or I or anyone else in that community faced with that situation would be making desperate choices too.

MT: Yeah, it’s not like they’re bad people. It’s just educating a community about what it is. That’s all. Then you don’t have to be afraid of it. I love that. So I love that you’re teaching this mindset shift. So some of our listeners who are CEOs and founders are maybe struggling to raise the money they need to raise to do their work, that it’s just as urgent as your work. So what do you have to say to them?

MO: Well, a few things. Many things. I’ll save some of it for the talk, but in a way I can’t help myself. You know, I think the main thing is if you’re struggling with something you don’t know, and the thing that makes this extraordinarily challenging is that you don’t know what you don’t know. But it actually doesn’t have to be hard. It doesn’t have to be hard. And it’s really about really getting – and this is absolutely something we’re going to talk about in my talk, too. But really taking a look at everything that you’re doing for fundraising, right? Take a look at everything that you’re doing and figure out what’s working. What’s not working? We did end up coming up with a fairly successful fundraiser where we were kayaking, and it was a fun event and it was nationwide. That made us some real money. That helped us break six figures, for sure. But was it our mission? No. Was it sustainable? No. Was it scalable? Kind of.

You know, so it’s like we actually had to scrap what was the most successful thing we were doing at that point. Right? We thought, let’s get really serious. What is going to make us the most money and be mission related? So I think that that’s step one. One, you don’t know what you don’t know. So be open to learning. Be open to hearing feedback on it. Be open to evaluating it. This kayaking event, this is my little baby. I loved it. But at the end of the day, it was not the most practical thing. So I think that that is part one.

The other thing is I would encourage you to really connect with who you serve and why you’re here. Really connect with that. I think there were several things that were kind of a turning point for the Global Autism Project, one of which was me being diagnosed with Lyme disease and not having as much energy as I wanted, and really just connecting with who I was and why I was here and how I was going to use my energy that was limited, and what was really important. I think when you can just bring it back to the people you’re serving and why you’re here, every single person who has started an organization like this, who has had this vision – every single one has a beautiful story. A moment in time that just completely galvanized you and said, you know what, this is what I’m doing. I think it’s important to circle back to that.

I know you were here in my office, I don’t know if you saw there was a picture on my desk. It’s a pretty worn out picture, and it’s a kid looking me in the eye. We worked with him for a while, and we teach them to use eye contact. But I keep that picture on my desk because I remember it was a particularly frustrating day, and like everyone has a beautiful story, everyone has frustrations. I went outside and this kid, I kind of picked him up like hey buddy, going to keep going, man. And he just took my face and looked me in the eye, and somebody just happened – I don’t even remember the picture being taken. But she just happened to get a picture of it, and it’s like, that picture and that moment brings me back to this organization in a way that just – it’s so easy, I think, when you’re a founder and CEO of the organization to get kind of bogged down with details and payroll, the payroll taxes, but I can just look at that picture and come right back. I think that is what I encourage everybody to do is to connect with why you’re here and who you’re serving, and from there think about how you can make changes to your organization.

Nonprofit Leadership Summit

MT: I’m really excited that you’re sharing this because it what you shared was not like hey, here’s the top ten fundraising techniques that I use. But here’s this kid that looked me in the eye and I picked him up, and maybe people who are listening don’t know this about people who have autism spectrum disorder. It’s hard for them to look people in the eye. It’s almost impossible for a lot of them. So that was a really big deal.

MO: Yes, absolutely. Yeah. I mean, I think that’s an important point, right? This was a skill that we had been working to teach, and also the other thing is when we’re teaching people with autism, we can sometimes get them to show us their skills in a very kind of contrived setting. In the classroom setting, right? But for this kid to be outside and me to just pick him up and him to look. I mean, that was like, what? This is amazing. I’m in the conference room now, but the picture is on my desk. Which is another accomplishment, by the way. When you talked to me previously, I was either at my house or in my office that was the size of a shoebox. Now I can’t reach my desk from the conference room. This is amazing. But I’m pretty sure his hands were on my face too. You know, it’s just this moment in time that I’ll never forget, and I think those are the moments to connect to. They really are.

For us, we have autism clinicians around the world who travel with us. So we have 100 people travel with us, by the way, through that program. That little kayaking event that we abandoned in favor of doing something more on point, I think over three years, I would say that our SkillCorps program has probably brought in about $300,000. No, probably closer. Well, I know that it’s on track right now to do a quarter million next year, which is pretty incredible. But what’s more incredible about that is that what that means is that we have skilled teams of professionals who are going to travel to our partner sites and provide training. We have a saying around here. It’s not so much a saying, but a rule, that the kids are the bottom line. So whenever we’re making decisions, whatever decision we’re making. Who’s going to run the trip? Who’s going to staff this? Who’s going to be hired? Whatever. The kids are the bottom line, and it was a really simple but profound shift. Not as if they weren’t our bottom line, but to just bring that for awareness. To have that conversation in staff meetings. To just how are we going to do this? Oh, right. The kids are the bottom line. That’s how we’re going to do it. Oh, right. That’s the best thing for that kid. You know? So that’s a really cool thing, I think, to be able to do, too. For sure.

MT: So you’re going to be talking about values, and you’re going to be talking about connecting with your values and how that can shift your perspective enough to help you raise the money you need to raise in your organization. I love that.

MO: Absolutely. I’m also going to talk about some of the really next level things we’ve done, including we probably have the most unconventional board of directors set up of anyone that I know. But it’s working and it’s working well. So I will talk about how we’re doing that as well. That’s a very cool thing.

MT: I love that.

MO: But yeah, I love to kind of connect with your value and have that spiritual aspect of the conversation, and I think that’s a really important piece, being mindful about it all. But I can’t help myself. I want to give people the practical skills too and talk about what things did we change, and how did we change them, to be on track with our $1 million year next year.

MT: I love that. I love that you’re going to share that, and gosh. That information is worth millions of dollars. You’re going to be sharing at this conference. That’s incredible. I’m so grateful to you.

MO: I am honestly thrilled and humbled and excited to be in a position where I get to share what I’ve learned and sort of come out on the other side of it, I think, to an extent. And look, not 100 percent. From what I know of entrepreneurship, a fourth generation entrepreneur, it is kind of an ongoing rollercoaster. But in some ways, I think that I feel that I’m coming out on the other side, so to speak. I feel like to have an organization that is sustainable, that is growing. I have a conference room that is further away from my desk. And I have staff members who are part of this, and we’re really, truly creating a movement. What that means is we’re literally shifting the planet for families with kids with autism, and kids with autism all over the world. That’s the exciting part. It’s like, yeah, you need the money to do that. But the part that’s exciting is when you get to do that, for sure.

MT: Goose bumps. You’re giving me goose bumps. Seriously. Like just listening to you say this, I mean, I’m getting excited and hopeful for everybody who’s coming to think about how they can – if they are an association, you know, apply this to the different people that they’re supposed to be helping in their association, their members, or people who are just starting out from square one just barely making it. Hearing what you’re able to do and how many people you’re able to touch in the communities you’re able to educate around autism, and how much better you’re making the lives of people all over the world and building a capacity so that communities can do it. Not just you. You know? Not a top down thing. That’s so powerful, and I encourage people who are listening today to think about what could you accomplish if you went from $30,000 a year to $500,000 or $1 million a year. Imagine it. What would be different? And I think there will be some other things you’ll be talking about in the session as well, like the visioning process. I know you had a good name, but you didn’t necessarily have a vision of okay, we’re going to go this country and this country and this country. You were just like letting it be, right?

Nonprofit Leadership Summit

MO: We have our first video ever that was made in Ghana, and we shared this little girl whose voice sounded a lot like mine, who says, “We’re going to start in Ghana and go all over the world.” What does that even mean? How, who, what? Like I didn’t worry about that. I knew that’s what it was going to be. And I think the important thing that I really want people to get is that anybody can do this. Anybody. Anybody can learn how to run an organization at this level. They really, truly, truly can. And I think that’s what excites me about this. I think if you were to speak to me – and you did speak to me some years ago. I know this can be huge. I know this can be successful. I would have sort of been like, yeah, me too. Kind of. You know? So it’s been really kind of growing into that and believing that. It’s like every year we kind of ticked off one of those milestones. You know these statistics way better than I do, but there’s a certain number of nonprofits that last one year. There’s a certain number that lasts five years. There’s a certain number that lasts ten years. So it got to the point where I was like, even the fact that we’re still here is amazing. Okay. What next? But I mean, I’m really looking forward to this event. I think it’s going to be a tremendous event. As you know, I’ve been working with you, following you for such a long time. You always put together incredible people, tons of information, and it is really, truly just an honor to be a part of it. It really is. I’m thrilled.

Nonprofit Leadership Summit

Join us at the Nonprofit Leadership Summit on September 27-29th, 2016!

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