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podcast: navigating growth with Michael Prosserman

Imagine building a plane while you’re flying it - not an ideal scenario but one that forces you to do what you can so you can eventually level out the plane and keep it steady. This is what growing a small nonprofit is like. In this episode, Michael “Piecez” Prosserman, Founder of Unity Charity and CEO of Epic Leadership xChange, discusses understanding personal limits and how to break them with smart and strategic investments - regardless of where you are in your organization!

a little about Michael’s journey

Building and growing a charity from scratch is not easy - which is something that Michael can attest to. Unity Charity started off as an idea Michael had in high school. His grade 11 entrepreneurship class had asked him to run a venture that supported a charity.

As a breakdancer or “b-boy” dance was a way that Michael dealt with stress - which later became the inspiration for Hip-Hop Away from Violence, an event where hip-hop is used to tell the stories of how violence is perpetrated in young peoples’ lives and how dance helps them cope and overcome their struggles. What started as a high school class project has since become a national charity advocating for youth mental health called Unity Charity.

navigating growth

Growth is not a straight line. It almost always requires certain leaps which can be very scary for organizations. When do you know when to bring in help or at what point can you start paying yourself? When is it a good time to get an office? Michael makes these decisions using what he calls “the chicken and egg growth.”

The chicken and egg growth is all about growing something without any resources. How is this possible? Michael relates this with building a house - you do this one brick at a time. Each brick represents a resource which can be something that provides value other than money, such as a relationship or a mentor. In the beginning - you’ll have to be crafty with how you can get these for free or for a cheaper price, and eventually when you have more money you can compensate them for the value they provided you.

The key to growth is to build thoughtfully, carefully and slowly with the community you’re serving and let the results of the program tell the story and become the foundation for your organization. As you build up the program, the results become stronger and you learn more from the space and the communities you serve which can leverage for more fundraising. With more fundraising brings more improved and thoughtful programming.

don’t get too hung up over scaling

Scaling is a word that admittedly we tend to use a lot in our sector. We get excited when we hear it and sometimes we’re not totally sure what it refers to or what it looks like in our organization. Many organizations scale to new communities where the program may not be relevant, then spend money, time and energy to make it relevant.

For Michael, not everything is meant to be scaled. You don’t always need to grow to have the right impact - you may already be the right size for it! Sometimes the best thing you can do is re-evaluate what the community you’re serving needs, what resources your organization needs to meet them and developing the skill set to acquire and use them - even before you need to use them!

The goal isn’t to grow, grow, grow; but rather, grow by learning in order to do and be better.

the impact of leadership

It’s hard to recognize when you don't know something as a leader and it’s very tempting to ignore it instead of acknowledging it. Leading from a position of strength often requires admitting your vulnerability, doing something about it and empowering those around you to do something about their strengths and improving in areas they need to.

Michael emphasizes taking care of yourself and making sure your mental health is in a good state as part of ensuring the organization will be. Otherwise, you’ll risk burning out yourself and your organization will not survive.

organizational culture

Part of growth is re-evaluating how your organization can learn and improve their skills as a team. In Michael’s case, he found that the right employee didn’t necessarily have a business or fundraising degree, but knew or was a part of the community they served. He went to the people in the community who could do the work and were invested in it, and put them in positions where they can get paid for it.

The core of the organization lies within the culture, the people within it, and the energy it creates. At Unity Charity, this included hip-hop artists and youth who had graduated from their programs.

casting a wide net with intention

Perseverance also played a big role in making decisions. This means not taking no for an answer and continuing to try even if you’re not necessarily succeeding. Then eventually prioritizing what needs to be done through self-reflection and remembering your mission.

At Unity Charity, Michael took it upon himself to research those who are succeeding in key areas where he needed to improve and then directly asking them in person for specific help. He met with grant officers and writers to provide mentorship and help with proposals. He applied for every opportunity to receive operational funding and despite many rejections, he kept applying and asking them to look at their proposal.

He sought out mentorship in every related topic he can think of and found an expert that was willing to provide guidance. This snowball effect is extremely useful, free and when done in a genuine way, can be a great resource for learning. Once you do that, you build a community of people who can vouch for you behind closed doors using word of mouth and at the same time, teach you what you need to know.

In small organizations - it may feel like go, go, go where everyone is constantly sprinting without knowing where the finish line is. Taking the opportunity to keep evaluating what’s working, what’s not working and how to move forward will get you closer to succeeding each time you try again - this is growth.

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You might find it helpful to review our Grow or Bust? episode featuring many of our guests from season one!

The Small Nonprofit is produced by Eloisa Jane Mariano