Turner Social Impact Society member Stephanie Wu, W’20, consulted for Asociacion CREAR, an educational nonprofit in Costa Rica. Working on the ground in Costa Rica, she learned four important lessons about small nonprofits.

Sámara is a beautiful town in rural Costa Rica where everybody seems to know everybody and the beach is only a few minutes away. But the idyllic waves that attract the tourists belie the poverty and unemployment within the community.

Along with the Penn International Impact Consulting team, I had been working remotely with Asociacion CREAR (an educational nonprofit) for eight months. We helped them develop a local business outreach strategy and improve the efficiency and profitability of their volunteer program. But it wasn’t until we landed on-site and had face-to-face interviews with their staff, board, students, and parents, that we could truly understand the internal and external challenges of running the organization.

Stephanie standing with 6 other people smiling in front of the ocean on a cloudy day, wearing athletic clothing
Stephanie, third from the left, with the Penn International Impact Consulting team and the Asociacion CREAR team in Costa Rica.

Here are four lessons I learned about small nonprofits through this experience:

1. It takes resilience to run a small nonprofit.

After hearing CREAR’s executive director Andrea Keith share her story, I felt tremendous respect for her resilience. She kept the organization working despite a multitude of challenges: seeking funding within a community which is itself far from wealthy; attaining buy-in from a community less familiar with the role of nonprofits; retaining staff members who may not be able to live on a nonprofit salary long-term. In a way, it reminded me of the struggle that early-stage entrepreneurs might face, but without the Silicon Valley glamour.

2. It’s a battle between chicken and egg.

When you have limited people, effort, time, and energy, you have to pick your battles. So the question of whether to focus on funding or impact becomes one of chicken or egg. More funding will lead to higher quality and quantity of programs, and more programs and success stories will draw in higher funding. It can seem impossible to know which side to focus on first, but even more impossible to do both simultaneously.

3. People are often (wrongly) drawn to big organizations.

In our society, we equate big organizations with success and want to donate to or work for them. We know about their mission, trust them to use our dollars effectively, and believe that we will gain better skills as their employees. But often the most impactful organizations are those which are serving the most remote communities. These organizations typically have the least funding (as they are not surrounded by wealthier donors), least visibility (as they have slim to no marketing budgets), and least brand-recognition on a resume. But these smaller organizations are the ones likely to provide intensely immersive training.

4. Business skills are crucial for nonprofit management.

I expected my business classes to be useful in some capacity, but I did not know they would have such a direct application. At the end of the day, nonprofits face the same issues as for-profit businesses, such as motivating and retaining staff, marketing their services, planning financial investments, and coordinating operations. The marketing strategies, financial modeling, and management theories that I learned from Wharton were crucial when writing a business plan for CREAR.

I am incredibly thankful for CREAR’s openness about their struggles and successes, and for the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the day-to-day realities of a small NGO making a big impact.

— Stephanie Wu

Posted: August 5, 2019

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