You want to start a non-profit? Even if you already have your idea established, there’s still so much to consider to get it off the ground— and that’s just to get it off the ground. Eric D. Newman has not only launched his own non-profit, now, he has written a book helping others do the same. It’s called, What Hope Looks Like: Use Your Pain to Fuel Your Purpose. On Author Hour today, Eric shares advice for how to collect board members, how to fundraise and pull in volunteers, and how to avoid the dreaded mission creep and founder syndrome so you can ensure that your organization will outlive even you.
Hi Author Hour listeners. I’m here today with Eric D. Newman, author of What Hope Looks Like: Use Your Pain to Fuel Your Purpose. Eric, thank you so much for being with us today.
Eric D. Newman: Yeah, thanks for having me.
Jane Stogdill: First of all, can you tell us what made you decide to write this book? What sparked this journey for you?
Eric D. Newman: What made me start the book was about 12 years ago, I started a non-profit organization and I spent hours and hours and years and years on Google— which Google’s amazing— but I had no idea how to run or how to start a non-profit. The reason I wrote this book is, there’s people in this life that have experienced pain with no reason of their own, no wrongdoing of their own, and I think that there’s a lot of people out there that want to take their pain and use it to their purpose. Which is very similar to what I did.
Jane Stogdill: Can you tell us a bit about what you did and about your non-profit?
Eric D. Newman: Yeah, 12 years ago, I started a nonprofit organization called Roc Solid Foundation. To put it simply, what we do is we build hope for kids fighting cancer. The easiest way that I can explain it is that we put playsets in the backyards of kids fighting cancer. The reality is, the first thing that’s taken from a child when they are fighting cancer is the ability to play and I know that firsthand because I’m a childhood cancer survivor myself.
When I was three years old, I was diagnosed with the rare form of liver cancer. Fought that till I was about five, got put into remission, lost two cousins, same ages I was when I got diagnosed at three years old. One, I’ve lost one of them at the age of five and I lost the other one at the age of 17. Pediatric cancer has really ravaged my family and with the passing of my second cousin, I kind of threw away cancer. What I mean by that, my family didn’t speak about it anymore and I figured that cancer was going to come back and get me. What I did is I started a lawn care company, did well, started a construction company, did pretty good, sold that, and then in 2008, I had already been back in another construction company and I ended up losing everything.
I found myself. I love to surf, big-time surfer, so I picked everything up, went to Costa Rica, and asked myself what this one and only life was about. Spent some time there and lo and behold 12 years later, I wrote the word “Hope” on a piece of paper in Costa Rica and I’ve been chasing that word for the last 12 years, loving and serving the cancer community.
Jane Stogdill: You write – I want to ask you about a line. We talked a second ago about pain and purpose. You write that “hope is where your pain meets your purpose and you can visually see the solution.” What does that mean?
Eric D. Newman: The title of the book is, What Does Hope Look Like. I think that there’s always someone that— for me, I was walking out of something, some pain and I had some life experiences. There’s always someone walking into something that I’m walking out of or that someone has walked out of and there’s little experiences along the way that I’ve been able to pick up that could help that person walking into the situation that they’re walking into.
That to me is what hope looks like. It’s [when] you take that pain, you’ve been able to navigate it, been able to live through it, now, you’re able to share that pain, also now, it’s turned into your purpose with the people that are walking into that same type of situation.
You Have An Idea For A Non-Profit. What Next?
Jane Stogdill: Thank you. With that, let’s get into it. How do you advise people to get started? They think they have an idea for a non-profit, what next?
Eric D. Newman: The idea comes in; the easiest way to talk about it is if you go to bed thinking about something and then you wake up thinking about something, I would just encourage you to write it down first. I’m a firm believer if you write it down, it’s harder to kill. Start journaling about it. Any time you see me, I always have a journal to capture my thoughts. Start writing it down, start writing the idea down.
Then the other question I would ask is, if you are looking to start a non-profit, what experiences do you have that you wish you would have had when you first started going through the painful situation that you went through?
Once you start doing that— as an entrepreneur, I love, I’ve started many, many businesses and this one for me is just a business with a mission. For me, I’m like all right, what problem am I trying to solve? The problem that I’m trying to solve is, kids lose out on play. So, how do we make sure that kids fighting cancer never lose out on the ability to play? I would just try to run after the problem that you want to solve and then after that, write it down and then start talking to people about your idea and watch it really come to life.
Jane Stogdill: You have lots of advice for best practices for how you start sharing your idea with others in a way that will help you gain momentum and I guess you’re also going to need to get some specific people to join you.
Eric D. Newman: Yeah! The people that you need in place— and this isn’t a perfect cocktail. What I mean by that is you’re the heart, right? If you’re listening to this and you want to start the organization, more than likely, you are the center part and you’re the heartbeat of the organization. The heartbeat pumps the blood throughout the human body. With that, what I would encourage you to do is put people around you. You got to know who you are, you got to know where you’re going and what you believe. I think the reality is, if you can place those people around you— for me, I had the construction experience, right?
I knew that I could handle that side, I didn’t have any legal experience so I looked up a couple of my buddies. I actually took one of my buddies out for a couple of beers because before, I asked five or six attorneys to help me and they said, “No way, it’s the worst economy since the great depression. Only millionaires start non-profits.” I finally found one of my buddies that I went to high school with, had a couple of beers with him, and asked him to help me start a non-profit and he actually agreed. He was one of the founding attorneys for my board.
Also, someone in marketing, someone that knows how to tell the story because not everybody that’s been through the painful situation knows how to articulate the pain or the story. People in marketing have the tendency to be able to bring that story to life. I would also look for somebody that’s in the sales world if you will. I had a buddy that was a real estate agent, he’s really good at selling things so I asked him to kind of help me because the reality is if you’re starting a non-profit, no money, no mission, you’re going to need to figure out how you can raise some money or capital, however you want to talk about it, to really get your idea out into the world.
Jane Stogdill: I was also really moved by the way you write about the importance of staying true to your values, even as the organization is growing and all these other people are coming in. Can you tell us what you mean by that and can you also tell us the story of the $10,000 check?
Eric D. Newman: I believe that values aren’t just something in an organization, they’re everything. A lot of people say that about cultures as well but you don’t get the culture without the values. I believe that values are designed to help you make the hard decisions and when you’re starting things at the beginning, it’s rapid-fire making the decisions but you truly have to know who you are, right? I think that’s extremely important for anybody, non-profit or for business, you need to know who you are.
It’s who am I, what do I believe, and where am I going? If you can answer those questions, then you just change the word from “I” to “We”. Who are we, where are we going, what do we believe? For instance, this is “We”, it’s the organization that you’re leading and it’s hard to lead people of different backgrounds without central values.
I think values are the things that help you make the hard decisions. What I have found is that when you have the values in the organization, you really don’t pull them out when things are good. Yes, you hire by them, sometimes you fire by them. But the reality is, values truly come, and where they show their worth is when trouble hits or when you have to make a decision that goes against the grain or the popularity.
The story that you’re talking about is, I was sitting across from a gentleman. He was offering us— I mean the meeting was going great. I had my chairman of the board with me and the meeting, he was talking about, he wanted to get involved. He wanted to help fund the organization and so he slid me a check but along with the check, it came with some guidelines and the program that he was looking to support is a ready-bag. What a ready-bag is, it’s bags that we give to families on the day they’re diagnosed and inside that bag, it just allows families not to be split up, not to have to go home to pack an overnight bag so they can stay with their family.
For this example, the gentleman slid over the check— $10,000, it’s the most money that I had seen as a non-profit leader— and with that, it had stipulations. He wanted to put a Frisbee in there and a bobblehead. When I sat there and like, that’s not going to help our families and one of our values at Roc Solid is, families first. I kept repeating them, I kept repeating those values in my head and, I mean, my heart was about to beat out of my chest and you know what I’m talking about, just one of those moments that you – it’s a life-changing moment for you.
I just slid the check back to him and I said, “I’m sorry, I can’t accept your money.” My chairman almost fell in the floor because we were completely broke but it was something with that value. I could not imagine a mom and dad hearing the worst news of their life that their child has cancer and then they pull out a Frisbee out of this bag. What are the heck are they going to do with a Frisbee?
I slid it back and the guy got a little offended with me but then he was like, “Oh whoa, whoa, whoa, we really want to support you.” I was like, “That’s fine, but we’re not going to be able to move forward with those stipulations.” Lo and behold, he ended up coming back, slid me the check, gave us more money because he appreciated that I stood for something and I was willing to push back money for what I believed in and I think that’s a rare thing in organizations. I hadn’t had that value of family first, I would have been consuming that money— not me but the organization— and I would have been putting Frisbees in these ready bags and that would definitely not help the families that I’m called to love and serve.
Jane Stogdill: Yeah, they were branded, is that right?
Eric D. Newman: They were branded. He didn’t mean anything by it, right? He was just doing what he knew to do, but for me, that’s the type of stuff that keeps me up at night. I just want to make sure, no matter what, that we’re true, we’re authentic to who we truly are, and the best way to stay true to who you really are as an organization or a leader is to have a solid set of values.
The Non-Profit Shakeup
Jane Stogdill: The values are also part of how you pull people in, attracting volunteers and whatnot. How do you invite people into your story as the leader of the non-profit?
Eric D. Newman: Well, I think how you invite people into your story as a leader of a nonprofit is that you got to invite them in but I think the people need to get hands-on. See it, touch it, feel it is really what the strategy is for us and I think that the way that you invite them in is showing them, making it simple. It has to be simple. People, I truly believe, humans want to do good but life gets in the way.
So, how can we create an inviting environment that allows people to come in, see it, touch it, and feel it? For us, building playsets or if you’re’ helping with the homeless ministry, how do you just make sure A. that you’re ready for your volunteers, prepare that you invited them— prepare and know that they’re coming? I compare it to if I invite people over to my house for dinner. When they get there, I’m ready, I’m prepared. It looks like I’ve been waiting for them and that’s just keeping it simple. Being prepared, and then allowing them to get the hands-on experience.
My whole philosophy for bringing volunteers in— especially as the founder, I get a lot of accolades, I get a lot of high fives, but the reality and my philosophy is I must become less, they must become more. And they as the volunteers— it’s the community, it’s the donors— how do we empower them to continue to love and serve the community that they are called to love and serve? I think just making it simple, being prepared for them, and getting a little dirt on their hands allows them never to really forget the experience.
You know you’ve created a moment when people pull their cellphones out and they want to capture that moment. So, how can you capture, how can you create those moments where volunteers in that community wants to constantly be a part of it is the key.
Jane Stogdill: Speaking of donors, you’ve got lots of great advice in this book about what to focus on when you throw an event or fundraiser. What are some of the pitfalls people can avoid and what do you suggest people focus on?
Eric D. Newman: I think some of the pitfalls is focusing on the money. Yes, again, no money no mission but if you focus on the people, the money will always come, is a firm belief in fundraising. I’ve heard horror stories of development coordinators that— and those are people that are paid to raise money for the organization— they hop on a call and everything is a number. And I agree, I believe that numbers are important but every number has a name. For me, every name associated with the dollar figure that we bring in is a child and family fighting pediatric cancer.
And another philosophy which goes a little bit backwards against raising money is to give without a promise of return. Which is a little backwards for the non-profit world but I do believe that if you just focus on people, give them an experience to where they want to come back, be extremely transparent with where all the money goes, and I think being creative. I am a firm believer that cover bands never change the world, so that’s what I’ve set out to do. I want to change the world for the pediatric cancer community and I think fundraising is a very old model. I think that just like how Uber came in and disturbed the taxi cab world, Airbnb with the hotels, I think non-profit needs a little shakeup on how they raise the money and I like to think that we’re being extremely creative on trying to do that.
The way that we’re doing it is, yes, golf tournaments are great but I think that some organizations can get so stuck. I call it “death by golf tournament.” Try something that people have never done. Don’t recreate the wheel but put some rims on it. Being creative, make sure that you always tie your mission into any type of fundraising development world is extremely important, show people exactly where their money is going and I think you’ll be extremely successful. The hard part in development is not focusing on the money— the money is important— but if you focus on the people, the money will never run out.
Jane Stogdill: That’s good advice. You mentioned mission, what is mission creep? What does that mean?
Eric D. Newman: Mission creep is something that I think when you first start an organization— and this can be in for-profit but specifically for non-profit— you start a program, and what I mean by a program is that you start actually solving that problem that you set out to. For us, we started building playsets and we got successful at that. Any person that’s starting a non-profit more than likely they have a little bit of an entrepreneurship behind them.
I think that for me, I love to start things. I love to start things and I like to hand them off but mission creep is where you get a little successful in one program and then you think you have it figured out then you start another program. For us, it was room makeovers. We did playsets and then we did room makeovers for some of the older kids and then we started an iPad project, then we started this, and then we started this, and we started this.
We started about six or seven different programs at the very early stages of our organization and you can’t be excellent at everything. You can’t. So, what is that one problem that you are looking to solve? And for us, there are close to 1,600 kids a year that get diagnosed with pediatric cancer, and our BHAG, big hairy audacious goal— that’s not mine, that is Jim Collins— it’s to provide 16,000 ready bags and 3,000 playsets a year.
Once we accomplish that goal then that’s when we’ll look to maybe extend then to other programs. But I am a firm believer you can’t be excellent at everything and just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should. And that is a hard, hard thing to learn as you start the first couple of years. You are gaining momentum and your heart and your mind is sometimes the longest destination distance that you could go through.
I think that luckily for me, I had a phenomenal board of directors. I had a lot of people around me that helped me really focus in because extreme focus over time creates momentum. And so once we accomplish those goals of 16,000 bags and 3,000 playsets, and if no one is doing room makeovers, then guess what I’ll be doing? I’ll be doing room makeovers but not until I hit that other goal.
The Mission Feeds The Model
Jane Stogdill: What’s the difference between mission and model?
Eric D. Newman: The mission for me and for Roc Solid Foundation is to provide hope for kids fighting cancer. The model for example is right now the playsets. We’re building playsets but the mission reality for what we do is it is not about the playset. It is about when that child comes around the corner and they see the playset for the first time and guess what they are not thinking about? Cancer. So that, for me, is the mission.
There is a couple of common things in Roc Solid Foundation since the very beginning is that we’re relentlessly loving and serving kids fighting cancer, not recklessly— and that’s a key thing too. Relentless and reckless can sometimes look like the same thing but the passion and focus creates being relentless. Reckless is mission creep.
But marrying the mission, not the model is, for example, when COVID hit. I think we’re 18 months in after COVID has hit, we sold our playsets as corporate team-building exercises across the United States. So we tried corporate teams come in, they want to do team building, we want to build playsets for kids fighting cancer. Well, when COVID hit, we couldn’t do that. And so what would wake me up at night is like, I’m like, “Man, cancer does not care about COVID and so how do we make sure that these kids can still defeat play?” And so we created a whole new program called ROD, Roc Solid On Demand, and by a push of a button, we would deploy hope.
So we shipped the playsets directly to the kid’s house and then we had video training for what we call their quarantine 10 of the family members that desperately love them, and they wanted to do something for this child. We just taught them how to do it. And I think that’s the part of marrying the mission.
If I hadn’t been married to that mission of providing hope for kids fighting cancer, we would have never been open-minded enough to take ourselves completely out of it and put it back into the hands of the community. Now, what we’re doing is we’re not just focusing on being experts of building playsets, we’re making a transition of not just being experts of building playsets, but now we’re looking to build community to then empower them to build the playsets.
Jane Stogdill: Okay, so the model feeds the mission not necessarily the other way around.
Eric D. Newman: Correct.
Jane Stogdill: I’m sorry, I said that opposite but that was right?
Eric D. Newman: Yeah, so the mission feeds the model, right? For the ready bag, for example, our ready bags, it’s been in five or six different types of bags throughout the years but it’s really what’s inside that bag that counts. I think that if you can just be sold out to your mission, it makes you open-minded. It allows you to look at things desperately and what I had found in a lot of non-profits is that non-profits are scared to change. Meaning a lot of them have married their model and when the model stops working, they don’t know what to do.
So then, they go back on this avenue of trying to re-find themselves, if you will. I think if you just keep that mentality of marrying the mission not the model and just asking yourself and being okay if you have staff members or team members or volunteers to say and raise their hand in one of the meetings, “Hey, I think that we’re marrying this model too much, we’re losing focus on the mission,” we have to be okay with that.
Jane Stogdill: Thank you. All right, what is founder syndrome and how can people avoid it?
Eric D. Newman: Founder syndrome— it’s not my term but I have studied it for the last couple of years— founder syndrome to me is where you think that the organization cannot survive without you. Therefore, that puts a lot of unnecessary stress on you. Because, I said it a little bit earlier, being the founder, it’s an addictive position, and what I mean by that is you’re always getting the hugs, you’re always getting the high fives, you are getting a lot of the accolades.
One thing that I say is I’ve never seen someone get qualified on stage, right? What I mean by stage is speaking in the limelight. And so with that, it’s taken me on this journey to where like, “Hey, listen. This organization can survive without you” and how does it survive without you and the first way to start making that step to make sure that the organization that you started survives without you is you becoming less, and they becoming more. Your board becoming more, your staff becoming more, your volunteers becoming more, the people that are really loving and serving the community empower them to do it. And then take yourself out of it, which is extremely hard to do.
I look at it this way. The reason that I came up really with that side of it is that what I do is seen to be a very good thing in the community and I have to be careful with that because I have two beautiful kids and I have an amazing wife. My kids will not care how many playsets Daddy builds for the world if I’m not there for them. I think that that’s the part of founder syndrome that scared me the most, to really hone in and focus in on the things that are unique to me; my wife, my faith, and my kids. No one else can do those things better than me and the reality is one day I’ll leave this organization— not in anytime near future— but I’ll leave this organization and I want it to live on past me and at the end of it, what I’m looking at and when I say at the end of this journey is I aim for two white rocking chairs that I can sit in. One for my bride and one for me and that’s really what I’m aiming at. That’s really, as I’ve navigated founder syndrome thinking that the whole world revolves around me, that’s really allowed me to hone in.
Jane Stogdill: Thanks, Eric. There’s so much to chew on in this book, I appreciate you putting it together and I appreciate the work that you do with Roc Solid Foundation. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you. Again, listeners, the book is, What Hope Looks Like: Use Your Pain to Fuel Your Purpose. Eric, in addition to reading the book, where can people go to learn more about you and your work?
Eric D. Newman: You can go to rocsolidfoundation.org and Roc is spelled R-O-C.
Jane Stogdill: Great, thank you.
Eric D. Newman: Thank you so much.