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Founded in FoCo: Nonprofit startups a labor of love for founders

FORT COLLINS — Starting a business is hard. Launching an organization dedicated not to making money but to helping the community is often even harder. 

Founded in FoCo, Fort Collins’ annual startup week, brought together founders of newish community benefit groups Monday for a panel discussion on the joys and challenges of operating not-for-profit startups. 

Founders must make peace with the fact that often, at least for a while, nonprofits operate on the “one-person show model,” in which the founder’s sweat equity is the defining force keeping the organization above water, Sound Affects Music executive director Hanna Doreen Brown said. Sound Affects connects professional musicians with underserved senior populations and others living in institutional settings. 

Jamal Skinner, executive director of the Cultural Enrichment Center of Fort Collins, agreed, adding that this model often results in “weeks of no sleep” and a bank account balance teetering dangerously close to zero. 

“I spent a lot of my own savings to ensure that this was sustainable for the first year and a half or two years,” he said. The center’s mission is to support African American middle and high school students in Northern Colorado.

When founders move beyond the self-funding phase, that doesn’t mean budgetary woes cease, panelists said. 

“Most of us start the year with a stretched budget,” chief strategist and founder of nonprofit consulting group Vision Catalyst Kim Fisher said, “but somehow that stretch seems to work out.”

Even if nonprofit startups are lucky enough to afford consultants or grantwriters, it’s often the founders who are best positioned to sell their organizations to potential donors. 

“I know the story better than they do,” Skinner said.

Partnerships can be key to growth and to reducing expenses, Animal Friends Alliance executive director Sarah Swanty said. 

When Swanty’s group merged with Fort Collins Cat Rescue & Spay/Neuter Clinic and “our overhead just shrunk,” the combined group led a successful $2.8 million capital campaign, she said. 

“There were difficult moments,” she said, but ultimately, “we have helped more animals … by bringing our resources together.”

Regardless of the mission of a particular organization, simpler is often preferable to complex. 

“We’re not all things to all people,” Dementia Together executive director Cyndy Luzinski said. By keeping a sharp focus, nonprofit startups are often better able to maximize their community benefit.

Source: BizWest