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Inside Look | Starting a Nonprofit with Jennifer Tan

Scrabble tiles spelling out 'Passion and Drive'.

As someone who plans on starting my own organization one day, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to speak with a nonprofit founder, especially while they were still in the midst of building their organization!

Jennifer Tan founded Shine Foundation to improve the financial health of homeless abuse survivors in Baltimore and NYC, after noticing a recurring need through her personal and volunteer exposure to abuse survivors. She used her previous work experience in business, ability to communicate with a wide variety of people, and adaptability to found an organization that is making a difference.

Founding an organization is an admirable accomplishment and a goal for a lot of people. Did you have previous leadership roles or nonprofit experience?

Yes, my previous leadership and work experience has all been in business/private sector. I’ve worked in different industries, seen the commonalities across industries, and I’ve engaged in different types of work that all happen to be associated with behavior change.

My first job out of college was with a large publishing firm in NYC. I worked in different aspects of marketing that required me to gain insight into different types of people. I learned how important it was to communicate ideas in a certain way, especially for the other person to accept the ideas or feel comfortable with giving their own ideas.

After that, I moved into management consulting and interacted with a lot of different types of people while constantly on the road. I was traveling all over the U.S and advising hospitals specifically on their supply-chain management practices. My financial knowledge expanded there because I was advising people how to best spend their money. I was able to observe different types of leadership and communication styles while in that role.

I’ve also lived abroad in several different places. I lived in China twice, and I’ve lived in the United Kingdom and Mexico. Having those cultural experiences enhanced my ability to understand people, my patience with other people, and made me thankful for all the people who were patient with me while I tried to communicate things. I’ve become more sensitive to how people communicate. Just because someone’s quiet, for instance, doesn't mean that person is angry with you or doesn't like you. It may be that it’s just how that person is and you may need to use a different style to communicate with them.

Would you describe yourself a risk-taker or go-getter?

I would say that I am goal-oriented. If I have a specific goal in mind, I will do what I have to do and be what I have to be in order to achieve that goal, within reasonable limits and my own level of comfort. If that goal requires me to be a risk-taker, then I’ll be a risk-taker. If it requires me to be a go-getter, then I will be a go-getter.

What bumps in the road have you hit or mistakes you’ve made along the way? How did you recover and what did you learn?

With a start-up, you are constantly running into bumps in the road. It’s a natural part of the journey. If I had to choose one recurring bump, as a volunteer-run organization, I’d say volunteer retention has been an issue. People are doing this in their free time and may not have that much time to devote to Shine. We typically ask for a weekly five to ten hour commitment for a minimum of one year, but are aware that unexpected things may come up that prevent an individual from staying on or providing that level of commitment. This may be a family emergency or moving out of the city. These are all part of people’s personal lives and it is important. I respect that importance and the time that all of our volunteers have devoted to our organization, however short or long it was. It goes back to what my friend said about moving forward. We just have to keep moving forward, even when people can’t stay on for as long as we’d like.

What does an average week look like for you? How does self-care fit in with your work week?

I basically have two full-time jobs. I have a day job and work on Shine throughout the day, in the evenings, and weekends. In an average week, for Shine, I create strategies with the national Board of Directors, work on upcoming plans for the NYC chapter, coordinate with the Baltimore chapter, establish new partnership opportunities, plan for programs with clients and other related work. It’s a lot of time management.

I would say that I’m naturally a procrastinator! I’ve always been the person who would leave things to the last minute. However, time management has been a skill I’ve had to cultivate through different work experiences. Through this gradual cultivation, I’ve been able to focus better.

I have gotten into Pilates lately. That is my self-care! I love Pilates. I do the reformer. It is such a challenge but I love it. I feel myself getting stronger, my posture improving, and though I’m a pretty happy person, I feel even better after pilates. I do pilates a couple hours each week.I also reserve at least one day a week, if not more, for myself to unwind and not think about work.  

How would you describe your leadership style and how does it contribute to your organization’s culture?

I’m still trying to figure this out, but I would say my leadership philosophy is that I work for my team. Not the other way around. I very much believe in investing in people. It’s something that I’ve benefitted from professionally and something I wish more managers and leaders would do. I’ve been in organizations where they were all about the tasks and not about investing in me as a person and the skills I wanted to grow. This is not what I want to happen in Shine. I want this to be a culture where we are all investing in each other and sharing in each other’s dreams and hopes.

Based on your experiences in the past few years, what advice would you give to other nonprofit start-ups who are looking to create partnerships involving programming successfully?

There are different phases of developing partnerships. The first phase is your initial introduction of your service to other people. If you don’t have an existing relationship with the organization you are trying to partner with, don’t give up. Be creative in your approach! Be ready for people to say no, to say they will call you back and never do it, or to not even answer your attempts to connect. That’s where the creativity comes in. You have to think of other ways to get their attention.

The second phase comes after you get their attention and begin discussing the scope of the potential partnership. Know what you want out of the partnership, and be clear with mutual expectations (both of what you expect of the partner, and what the partner expects of you).

The third and last phase comes after you have successfully agreed to partner and, in our case, implement a project together. Flexibility is key. Just because you want something done a certain way doesn’t mean that way will be the best approach. I remember having this idea of how things were going to be and then actually going into the shelter and realizing that my idea was not the best approach. In those cases, you have to be ready to adapt and adjust quickly.

What’s the best advice or mentorship experience you’ve received during your nonprofit start-up journey?

I love this question! This advice is from someone else who started a nonprofit. I remember sharing my worries and concerns with this individual, and her stopping me to say: “Jennifer, make a decision and move forward.” I loved it. Something so simple as that had an impact on me!

I do have a tendency to think about alternate scenarios and ask myself “What if?” for a lot of my decisions. For her, she’s been able to do so much because she has constantly made decisions, not looked back, and just kept going. That’s the type of path that I want to have. It’s something I’ve kept in the back of my mind since for when I’ve been presented with a challenge. I take a step back, make the best decision I can given what I know in that moment, and move forward.

By Jhia Jackson

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