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From Passion to Purpose: The Highs and Lows of Starting a Not-for-Profit

Starting a not-for-profit organisation is either a noble endeavour or a random act of craziness depending on how well it goes!

I started RIFT Social Enterprise driven by a passion to make a positive impact on society. However, the journey that I have been on over the last 5+ years has been rife with challenges that have taken a toll on my physical and mental health, often leaving me questioning why I took this unusual career path that I am on.

In this blog, I want to explore the emotional roller coaster of establishing a not-for-profit, including the impact on mental well-being, the frequent disappointments in funding applications, and the struggle to be taken seriously by larger corporations. I will delve into the inspiring story of RIFT Social Enterprise and how everyone involved, including my family, persevered to the point where we are now recognised as an organisation that makes a profound difference in the lives of countless individuals.

The Random Beginning

Every not-for-profit organisation begins with a spark of inspiration, a desire to address a pressing issue or contribute to a cause close to one's heart. For me, RIFT Social Enterprise was borne out of a random conversation with a relative stranger in a pub on Christmas Day 2017. The full story of how that conversation led to the formation of a not-for-profit organisation that now delivers in 46 prisons and for 17 DWP Restart providers is for another blog!

I remember the first 12 months of trading and pouring my heart and soul into laying the foundations of a successful business, fueled by the belief that I could create meaningful change. However, for others in similar situations who share this passion, it can come at a cost, as long hours, and the emotional investment needed can lead to exhaustion, frustration, relationship strains and burn-out.

Starting a Not-for-Profit can come with its Mental Health Challenges

The initial stages of setting up a not-for-profit can be both thrilling and overwhelming. The weight of responsibility to fulfill a social mission can lead to stress and anxiety. Founders often find themselves navigating uncharted waters, wearing multiple hats from manager to fundraiser, which can result in burnout and feelings of inadequacy. It is crucial for those embarking on this journey to prioritise self-care and seek support from loved ones or professional networks.

I was fortunate enough to have access to clinical supervision from the amazing Sullivan & Associates organisation who have been providing support to various teams that I have managed over the past 15 years. Having an objective listening ear to offload to was a huge advantage and is one that I have now made available to every one of the team at RIFT Social Enterprise.

The Struggle for Funding

One of the most significant challenges faced by not-for-profit organisations is securing funding to sustain their operations and initiatives. RIFT Social Enterprise, like many others, experienced frequent disappointments when funding applications were rejected. Despite the passion and dedication we put into crafting compelling proposals, it can be disheartening when resources are scarce, hindering the organisation's ability to make the desired impact.

Despite being a not-for-profit organisation that was driven by its social conscience, those first few years were spent ‘chasing’ the money in order to secure our existence. Our values and ethics at times had to come second to the need to secure funding in order to keep staff in jobs and to enable us to carry out our social mission. That was tough going.

Gaining Recognition and Credibility as a Not-for-Profit

In the competitive landscape of social entrepreneurship, gaining recognition and credibility can be an uphill battle. Larger companies and potential partners may not take a fledgling organisation seriously, leading to missed opportunities for collaboration and exposure. This uphill struggle can leave Founders feeling demotivated, but it is essential to remain persistent and continue building a network of supporters who believe in the mission.

The Highs of Making a Difference as a Not-for-Profit

Amidst the challenges, there are profound highs that come from witnessing the positive impact of the organisation's work. RIFT Social Enterprise persevered, and our commitment paid off as we began to secure more contracts enabling us to showcase what we do to a much wider audience, evidence the positive social and economical impact that we were having which provided a base for future funding rounds and seeing the lives of individuals positively transformed by our support. These success stories serve as a beacon of hope, igniting the drive to continue our journey.

Conclusion: Lessons Learned from starting a not-for-profit

The journey of starting a not-for-profit organisation is an emotional roller coaster with profound highs and challenging lows. The toll on mental health, relationships, and determination cannot be underestimated, but for those who persevere, the rewards can be immeasurable.

I was asked recently what advice I would give to myself if I could go back in time to when I first established RIFT Social Enterprise. This is what I wrote:

  • Take more time to relax and appreciate life outside work: Rapidly scaling a business became a 24-hour job for me. Whilst I love doing what I do, I now appreciate that downtime is important and helps me to re-energise and be a better version of myself.

  • It is important to recognise, appreciate and celebrate the external support that you have from family and friends. Starting a not-for-profit has an enormous impact on the lives of those around you, not just you as the Founder, and that support from my family and unwavering belief in the journey that I have been on has been a fundamental component of our success.

  • Don’t chase finances at the expense of diluting your identity/purpose as an organisation: It is only recently that we have started to cherry-pick which organisations we work with, based on shared values. For a long time, we were focused on securing revenue to ensure the continuation of the business. It’s a difficult balance, especially in those early years.

  • Surround yourself with people who are good at the things you are less competent at: Don’t feel you need be all things to all people just because you are the Founder.

RIFT Social Enterprise not for profit

Utilise others’ skillsets; celebrate that you have someone who is better at something than you are. Be authentic and unafraid to seek support. I am blessed with having a team of individuals at RIFT Social Enterprise who all complement each other like jigsaw pieces as well as having a partner with whom I can bounce ideas off and who is invested in the success of the business as I am.

To all the aspiring social entrepreneurs and not-for-profit Founders out there, remember that your passion and dedication can truly make a difference. Embrace the highs and lows, learn from setbacks, and stay resolute in your mission. Your organisation has the potential to change lives and build a brighter future for the world.


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