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How to Start a Charity for a Cause You Care About

10 tips for people 50+ from the founder of The Pink Fund


A few weeks ago, I met Molly MacDonald, the founder and CEO of The Pink Fund, a nonprofit that provides financial aid to breast cancer patients. The 63-year old breast cancer survivor was buzzing with energy as she told me about the charity she started eight years ago and her personal story triggering it.

The Pink Fund provides aid applicants it selects with up to $3,000 to pay for things such as health insurance premiums and essentials like mortgage, rent, car or utility payments. At the time of diagnosis, a woman must be employed and either have lost her job or be on a leave due to the diagnosis and treatment. So far, the fund has disbursed $809,505 and helped 844 women and four men since the spring of 2007. Little surprise that MacDonald was honored last year as an Encore Purpose Prize Fellow, one of 42 people Encore.org recognized for their remarkable work helping communities and the world.

(MORE: Purpose Prize Winners Do Great Work After 60)

An Encore Career or Side Project

MacDonald’s important work creating The Pink Fund got me thinking: It’s not such an outlandish dream to start a nonprofit if you’re over 50 and if there’s a genuine need, the way she did. And since we’re in charity-giving season, I thought it was a good time to pass on MacDonald’s hard-won advice to others who’d like to launch a nonprofit as an encore career or side project.

MacDonald, who has a background in sales and marketing, launched her Beverly Hills, Mich.-based nonprofit after her own financial struggle during her treatment and recovery from breast cancer. When diagnosed, she was on the cusp of starting a six-figure job making her the family’s primary breadwinner (her five children were then ages 12 to 21; her husband is a piano technician). Although the surgery and radiation left MacDonald cancer-free, her prospective employer dropped its job offer due to her health condition.

The family’s finances imploded and their home went into foreclosure. “I thought: ‘Oh my gosh, we are going to be homeless,’” recalls MacDonald. “I was just stunned. I couldn’t figure out how we were going to pick up the pieces.”

(MORE: 2 Women Launch Green Ventures in Midlife)

Her ‘Divine Inspiration’

Then she had what she calls “divine inspiration.” Says MacDonald: “If I could help one family from not experiencing this, it would make sense of what we were going through. Otherwise, I would end up feeling bitter.”

So she bought Nolo’s Starting & Building a Nonprofit: A Practical Guide, and, with her husband, began mapping plans. Within a year, The Pink Fund was born.

I asked MacDonald for her advice to others who are eager to launch nonprofits around causes that are dear to them. Here are 10 of her tips:

1. Start out by volunteering your time. “In the first three years, we worked from my kitchen table, raising about $30,000. By 2010, I had enough savings put aside that I quit my job [working for a mortgage company] and told the board that I would volunteer full-time without pay for one year,” MacDonald says. In 2011, the board voted MacDonald a $40,000 salary, which has since risen to $70,000.

2. Go slow. “It took a year to lay the groundwork to start the nonprofit,” says MacDonald. Getting traction wasn’t easy. “I have stood in rooms with three people listening to my spiel. There were times when I wanted to give up,” she says. “While people thought it was a great idea, they were not willing to put a big chunk of change behind it. They all said I was a big dreamer and would pooh pooh it.”

Some people will applaud your mission, but will hang back before offering funding. “They don’t want to get in your game until you are successful,” says MacDonald. That’s why, she says, “you’ve got to be in it for the long haul.”

3. Invite a well-known speaker for an event. Bringing in someone with a following could gin up interest in your nonprofit when you’re just starting out and under the radar.

“Three years ago, we invited the author Kris Carr, who had written Crazy Sexy Cancer Tips, to speak at a luncheon,” says MacDonald. “My idea was she had a huge tribe of followers who align with what we were doing. Well, we sold out; 400 people came. And now all of a sudden these people who didn’t know about The Pink Fund but loved Kris Carr knew about us. It allowed us to tell our story.”

Turns out, the head of Ford’s Warriors in Pink breast cancer charity was a Carr fan and called MacDonald when she heard about the upcoming luncheon, saying Ford wanted to help fund the event. Several months later, Ford invited The Pink Fund to join Warriors in Pink.

4. Create a vision board to inspire you. That’s a collage on a big white poster board with images and magazine cutouts that home in on your dreams and goals for your nonprofit.

“I thought vision boards were a bunch of baloney,” says MacDonald. “But in March of 2007, a year after I started The Pink Fund, I went to a breast cancer survivor’s recovery conference and we were asked to create a poster board around professional life, family life, physical life and spiritual life. I put the Ford blue oval logo on it; I knew they were one of the major corporate participants in breast cancer research and awareness and were located near me.”

Fast forward five years later when The Pink Fund became part of Ford’s Warriors in Pink family. “That has been a game changer in terms of our credibility and ability to fundraise, and I believe that mental image I carried with me help make that a reality,” says MacDonald.

5. Use your connections to get the word out through the media. “When we were ready to launch, I got one of my former employers, the Detroit Free Press, to run a story on our effort. More than a dozen newspapers picked it up and that’s how people heard about it. Then, donations began to come in,” she says.

6. Seek out nonfinancial donations or barter for services. “Our office space, legal work, brochure and website are all donated. Even our logo was designed by one of my girlfriends in exchange for a table I gave her,” says MacDonald.

7. Make sure your financials are in good shape. MacDonald says you need to run a lean organization. “Set up Quick Books accounting software [cost: around $10 to $40 a month], file your taxes on time and have a treasurer who advises you on how to spend money and live within your budget,” she says. “Nonprofit means you’re not making a profit, but you are a business. And you must run the organization with those principles.”

8. Develop an intern program. “It’s a win for both of you,” says MacDonald. “It saves some costs and you are able to give interns work experience for 10 weeks or so.”

You also get to learn from them and the internship can pay off for your charity in other ways. “We get interns through arrangements with two local colleges and have recently aligned with a college that has a patient navigation program, who will help us seek out other resources to help patients,” says MacDonald.

9. Use social media relentlessly. “Follow people [on Facebook, Google +, LinkedIn, and Twitter] you respect and learn from them,” says MacDonald. “I have made amazing connections that way.”

10. Network, network, network. “Attend community events and volunteer to speak at local Rotary Clubs and organizations like that. You never know who you will meet,” says MacDonald.

Or where your networking will lead.

Case in point: In 2009, when her daughter was working for Diana von Furstenberg, MacDonald was asked to model as a survivor for the designer’s fashion show benefit for the Susan G. Komen organization. “Someone from the SEED Foundation read about it and sent us a check for $5,000 with a note that said ‘Let me know if you need more.’ Since then, this woman has given us probably $125,000 and is looking at making a more significant gift,” says MacDonald.

Then there was the small function that MacDonald thought wasn’t a great use of her time to attend. She went anyway. “While I was there, I was introduced to a woman who has raised $42 million in the nonprofit world. Now I’m meeting with her in two weeks,” says MacDonald. And that could wind up helping more women with breast cancer who could use a hand.

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