Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Little Nonprofit That Could

Thirteen years ago I asked myself why nobody was already doing what I was thinking of doing – starting a nonprofit organization to help restore the arts to public schools in my community while bypassing the bureaucracy of the Los Angeles Unified School District.  
Was I na├»ve?  Had others tried and failed? Or did nobody really care?

Unaware and oblivious to all that would ultimately lie ahead of me, and what would be demanded of me to create, nurture and protect a new nonprofit, I set about learning all I could about how to file the necessary paperwork with state and federal governments, how to form a corporation, a board of directors, write bylaws, and how to fundraise.  Since my husband had a really good job at the time, we could afford for me to donate all of my time for several years, not only as the primary administrator and director, but as creative director and art teacher too.  I wrote the curriculum and taught all of the classes pro bono until “the little nonprofit that could” made it to the top of the mountain.  Arts in Education Aid Council (AEAC) was my third child.  I loved and cared for it (and worried about it in the middle of the night) as if it were one of the family.  The secret of my success in getting myself and my little nonprofit to the top of that mountain was that I never looked up.  I just kept doing what was put in front of me, taking it one step at a time, never worrying about when I might get to the top of the mountain or what would be there once I got there.

Once I got to the summit, I could see all around me.  AEAC had gone from being a “stage 1 organization” (run out of the founder’s home) to a “stage 2 organization”, autonomous from me (the founder), with a paid staff, separate office, lots of volunteers, and many different community partners.  We had found a place for ourselves within the arts education community of Los Angeles.  The organization continued to grow.  More and more schools and kids were being served.   We sponsored more events.  Our annual family arts festival grew so much every year that it got too big.  We were getting sizeable donations from the most notable foundations in Los Angeles.  We had made it to the mountaintop.

Then the recession hit.  

I, and AEAC, got knocked off of the mountain top.  It would have been much harder to take if I didn’t see every other small to mid sized nonprofit leader I knew tumbling down the mountain alongside me.  The foundations that had been so generous before had suddenly stopped giving.  Instead of giving less so that the nonprofits could make it through the recession, most of them gave nothing at all.  Individuals and companies could no longer afford to give anything to charity.  Many of them had suffered so much from the recession that they worried about their own survival.

Many nonprofits went out of business or merged with other nonprofits, just to stay in business.  With more and more people in need of food and shelter, arts nonprofits saw even less in the way of charitable giving because basic human needs needed to be taken care of first.  Limited charitable dollars went towards organizations that helped feed, clothe, and shelter people.  But they too were struggling because there were more and more people in need.  

The responsibility of keeping things together, both at AEAC and at home, took a toll on me physically.  I had never known such stress before.  My husband was self employed, and he was going through the same thing with his business.  He continued to work, but people couldn’t afford to pay him.  We went through all of our savings and retirement just to pay the bills.  We were lucky we didn’t lose our house.

In fear for my health, I decided to practice what I preach and I got busy making my own art.  Painting relaxes me and stops me from getting too stressed out.  Cartooning forces me to see the lighter side of life.  Listening to my favorite music while I paint or draw puts me in a good mood.  I walk out of my studio much more serene and balanced.  I’m easier to live with when I’m being creative.  

A lot has happened since I fell off the mountain top.  I spent the last year in treatment for breast cancer.  I continued to paint, draw, and listen to music while I underwent various therapies.  Making art not only helped my physical recovery by keeping me relaxed, but it made a huge difference in my mental and spiritual attitude.  When you’re fighting for your life, a positive attitude matters a lot.

I’ve stopped tumbling down the mountain.  I’m strong enough to stand.  After all that I have been through, I’m not afraid to look back.  I so appreciate all that went into getting to the top.  It’s a pretty amazing story.

And although I and The Little Nonprofit That Could are battered and bruised, we’re re-grouping and back on the trail again, living proof that the arts literally save lives.