Blood, Sweat and Tears
My gut reaction when people tell me they want to start a charity is “Don’t!”
Running a legit charity and doing it for the right reasons is hard and tiresome work. I can honestly say that Southern Nevada is blessed to have people who make the heavy lifting of homeless services work look easy. But, if you truly can’t resist the urge to start a charity, I will share five things I wish someone had taught me:
First, don’t duplicate what is already being done in your community. I meet people all the time who want to solve homelessness thinking they have a fresh idea but have not checked to see if the service already exists. The truth is most communities have charities that meet needs, but can use help. My advice to all interested in homelessness: find out when your local Continuum of Care board meets. The COC board is required under federal mandate by HUD for each community that gets funding for housing homeless. The board is made up of homeless-service providers, community members and formerly homeless. Almost every homeless agency will be a member of the local COC. Connect with them and see where your vision closely aligns.
Second, once you find an agency that aligns with your passion sign up to volunteer there. When you volunteer be prepared to do whatever the agency asks you to do. Go in with an open mind. Often volunteers aren’t open to certain tasks. A friend of mine who works at an agency had a volunteer argue about the position he was assigned, stating he felt he couldn’t have a meaningful impact. My friend responded, “The meaningful-impact jobs have been filled for the day, so we need you here.”
I volunteered for two years at my local Salvation Army. Then I spent three years working at the San Diego Rescue Mission in its residential program before I switched to a street outreach director position at a different agency. Those positions helped me discover my passion for street outreach and develop the mission of Caridad.
Third, be willing to be a good community partner. If you are truly going to make a difference you have to think of the impact on not only the homeless client but the indoor residents. If you do a charity correctly you will impact local businesses, taxpaying citizens and lawmakers.
Churches and charities from the suburbs come to feed homeless at downtown’s Huntridge Circle Park. After the meals are served the volunteers pack up and leave the park. Homeless, however, walk away disposing of what they don’t want in the neighborhood. Ninety-nine percent of homeless in the park are mild-mannered; however, public feedings can bring out a criminal element. I have seen squatters leave after a feeding and vandalize or steal from private properties.
Fourth, get ready to be broke and live the life of a startup company. While securing funding, it wasn’t uncommon for me to work 18- to 20-hour days for weeks on end. My charity got a significant financial donation from the Downtown Project in 2015. What the public didn’t see was the blood, sweat and tears shed the six years prior. In order to make the DTP funds last longer I have taken less than eight paychecks in two years.
Fifth, be transparent. Share your successes and failures publicly. On social media and in a monthly report for donors, as well as on our website, Caridad shares our cost per client and our ups and downs. We post our financials, which are professionally done by a charity accountant and are also available on GuideStar.org.
Charity work is a delicate balance of going out of business and panhandling to survive. Before starting a charity ask yourself, “Am I strong enough to do this? Do I truly believe in the cause?”
Formerly homeless, Merideth Spriggs is the founder and chief kindness officer of Caridad, a homeless-service provider based in downtown Las Vegas. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org