Q&A: Kelly Shanafelt offers tips and insights on launching a nonprofit

BIT OF ADVICE: "The biggest thing I would say to anyone looking to start a nonprofit is look around and see who else is doing work in the same field and talk to them," says Kelly Shanafelt, nonprofit consultant with Sims & Steele Consulting. Photo by Karri Brantley Watson

Little Shop of Horrors, the classic musical made famous by the 1986 film, remains one of Kelly Shanafelt’s favorites after playing Audrey in the 2009 Asheville Community Theatre production. While musical theater introduced her to the value of nonprofits, she’s expanded into another realm, working as a nonprofit consultant for Sims & Steele Consulting.

Shanafelt realized her passion for nonprofits in the 1990s, during her time in college in the Asheville area. “I went to school for musical theater, thinking that I would be an actor,” she says. “Sometime in my freshman year, I realized that that life was going to be very difficult, and it wasn’t what I really wanted. I explored grant writing and fundraising while I was in school, and then knew that nonprofit was where I was going to be.”

During the ensuing years, Shanafelt worked with a series of nonprofits including Asheville Community Theatre and Mountain Area Health Education Center. Even now, along with her consulting work for Sims & Steele, she continues her direct involvement with nonprofits as the executive director of Under One Sky Village Foundation and program manager for WNC Superheroes.

“If anybody is considering going into the nonprofit world, it is genuinely one of the most rewarding things you can do,” she says. “It doesn’t matter what your focus is or what kind of organization you’re working for. Our society wouldn’t exist in the way it does without nonprofits and the incredible work they do. And if you already have a wonderful career, consider supporting a nonprofit that you really care about.”

In a conversation with Xpress, Shanafelt explains the day-to-day work of a nonprofit consultant and offers advice for new and established nonprofits, alike.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

How did you choose this work?

I like knowing that my days have some deeper impact to them. Our society has chosen to organize itself in a way where nonprofits are necessary. We don’t take care of all of our needs as a community. And I’m speaking globally. As a community, we don’t organize our society in a way that takes care of our needs. As long as we’re going to need nonprofits, I want to be a part of that. And I want to be a part of serving the community as much as being a part of the community.

And I like the changeability of it. The variation in the work that I get to do is fascinating. One day, I might be talking to the Salvation Army. The next day, I might be talking to Asheville Community Theatre. That kind of variety — you don’t get that in many jobs.

The people that work at the nonprofits are also incredible. The clients that they serve are always fun to meet and interesting to talk with. And, every so often, if you can work for an organization that works with animals, you get to pet dogs! You get to see all of the community doing nonprofit work, especially as a consultant. I got to work at the WNC Nature Center for a while, and I learned things about zoos and wildlife habitats that I would never have known otherwise.

What does a nonprofit consultant do?

It depends on the organization and their needs. It might be a strategic plan, it might be board training or it might be board strengthening. It might also just be that they need a development plan put in place for fundraising, or they may need some communications assistance.

Prior to doing a major campaign of any kind — especially a capital campaign where you’re building a building or preparing for renovations or something like that — you’ll want to do a feasibility study to understand the workability of the project plan, the community support for the project plan and community understanding of your project plan.

What tasks do you regularly perform that might surprise readers?

I spend a disproportionate amount of my day in QuickBooks. Nonprofits do have to do accounting. I also spend a lot of time in my car. Both of the two nonprofits I work with plus Sims & Steele — none of these organizations have offices. I work out of my phone, which means I am constantly shuffling between meetings at this coffee shop or that coffee shop. I can tell you the best coffee shops in Asheville. I have had meetings at all of them. I really like Izzy’s in West Asheville, and Green Sage is always a great place to go for a meeting because they’re super polite about you being there.

What kind of guidance do newer nonprofits seek from you compared with more established nonprofits?

Figuring out how to build a donor base, figuring out how to get in front of the right foundations, figuring out how to get a business sponsorship program started. Often the folks who are starting nonprofits don’t come at it from a fundraising background; they come at it from a good idea and a desire to help. They think, “This is a great idea. People are going to want to support it.” But getting in front of the right people is always the toughest thing for startup nonprofits, and not knowing how to do that can be daunting.

Do you have any advice for those seeking to launch a nonprofit?

The biggest thing I would say to anyone looking to start a nonprofit is look around and see who else is doing work in the same field and talk to them. In Western North Carolina, we have a lot of nonprofits, and we have a lot of need. And those nonprofits aren’t necessarily replicating each other’s work but they are working in very similar fields and in very similar ways.

In the last five to 10 years, I have seen nonprofits starting to form these amazing close partnerships to support each other’s work. It’s genuinely about working together to solve a problem. So if you’re looking to start a nonprofit, go talk to people who are already working in the field and see where the holes really are. Where are those gaps in service? How can you work together to meet them?

What do you think about a nonprofit becoming an umbrella (a parent organization for other nonprofits)?

It can be an incredibly useful thing to have an umbrella, especially either as you’re starting up or for organizations who are in a time of deep transition, who may have lost a program or may have lost a particularly large grant that they’ve depended on for a long time. It gives smaller and startup nonprofits a foot in the door and a way to learn from their umbrella. If you’re just nested under an umbrella as a new organization and you’re not learning from that experience, I think you’re missing out. There are all kinds of things that you can learn from a larger parent organization.


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