How to Make the World Open Up to your Nonprofit


It's hard enough to get people to donate their money, time or bandwidth to a non-profit when the economy's NOT doing so lousy. Today, it's even tougher: How do you convince people to dig deep for you and your cause when they could be investing in Groupon instead?

Afam Onyema knows the answer, and it's rather counter-intuitive: You don't convince them at all. As the co-founder and COO of GEANCO, a Chicago-based non-profit that's been around officially since 2007, he knows what he's talking about. And on a certain base level, it makes sense: How eager are you really to help someone out who's needy, pushy, and seemingly only spending time with you just to loosen your purse or wallet strings. (Where did you get that wallet with strings anyway?)

To find out how one not only launches a non-profit, but also how they can run it with international ambitions (Onyema's organization aims to aid Africa's impoverished via medical missions and one day hopefully building a world-class hospital), I gave Onyema a call. (If you'd like to dig deep for his cause, the foundation is hosting a Dec. 3 concert gala to raise additional funds. Tickets are available here.)

Just to start off, can you give our readers some background on yourself and your foundation?

Afam Onyema: Sure, well, I was born and raised in Chicago. My mom and dad are both native Nigerians. My dad is an OB/GYN and my mom's an emergency-room nurse now for 20 years. They met in Nigeria and got engaged and married, and then came over to Chicago in the mid-'70s. My dad to do his residency at Cook County, my mom to be a nurse. Their plan originally was to only stay for about five years, learn as much as they could be about modern medicine, my mom would get a Master's in public-health administration, and they would move back to Nigeria and take care of our family and our people back home. But they had my older brother and a much younger sister than I, and realized we had amazing opportunities, so they stayed in Chicago and gave us those opportunities. It was through their hard work I was able to attend Harvard and graduated in 2001, and then after three years of working in Chicago for a public-relations firm, Hill & Knowlton, I entered Stanford Law School and graduated in 2007.

Throughout my academic career my father always told me of this dream of his and how he wanted to build this hospital. As I got older, especially in college, I got more and more interested in how I can help him and after law school I had to make the decision between accepting one of my several corporate-law offers or working for the foundation full-time, because through graduating in 2001, my time in law school I had spent a lot of time and effort with my dad to build an organization. We officially founded GEANCO, legally, in 2005, and so we built a board of directors and bylaws and started making money. There was really no one else to do it full-time, so it was either have it wither on the vine or have me go up and help. So I had to admit I was more excited doing this than anything else, anything having to do with corporate law or anything to that effect. So I made the challenging but still happy decision to work on GEANCO full-time since 2007.

What advice can you offer to other people who want to start a nonprofit and grow it?

Afam Onyema: I think people almost all the time, it's, "How do we get money? How do we get donors? How do we get celebrities and events? How do we get big CEOs involved?" My advice to them is, first have a plan. Even if it's going to change, and it will change, our plan has changed several times since we first formulated it literally on the back of a napkin as my dad and I were having pizza one night. But we had a plan. We had an idea of what we were going to do. With that plan you go out and get people. Not people to donate, just people to fit in however they can. People to serve on your board. People who may know a good law firm to refer you to. A good account. A good web designer. Just start talking about your plan and your dream with people, and don't ever think, "This person's not rich," or, "I need to get money out of this person." Once you give them your plan and they hear your passion and it makes sense to them, the whole universe opens up. They'll say something like, "Oh yeah! I never thought about this, but my cousin is an accountant looking to do global health work."

This is going to sound clichéd and hokey, but by far it's the key to any success we've had: be a good friend. All of our donors, or at least 90 percent of them, are friends of mine, friends of the family, friends of the board, or they became friends first before they started donating significantly. Because I really took time to cultivate friendships, to build it, to let people know I wasn't looking for anything from them, I built up a strong base of support among my friends and really good credibility so that now, when I'm asking for money, asking for them to come to events, asking for introductions, you have that firm base. They realize that I'm not suddenly talking to them, sitting with them, having dinner with them because I want money from them. They know I was doing it before I started GEANCO, they believe and bought into my mission, and even with wealth donors it's hard to get them to write you a check after one pitching meeting. If they're in the oil business we'll send them an article and be like, "Oh, did you see this? What do you think of that?" Just pop in, say hello, talk for an hour, leave, and not mention money once. You find that that really works. They respect that when you share your mission, your struggles, and you're honest with them and not just trying to leech what you can from that moment. It's difficult because it takes so long. You have needs. You have bills. You have programs that need to be funded and so you certainly need to push ahead and raise money as much as you can, but especially for the larger, more prominent donors, they get hit up a lot. You need to build a relationship with them.

One more, really quickly, would be to find and cultivate friendships and relationships with decision-makers, whether it's the vice president of a large company, the first son of the heir to a large family fortune. People think, "Oh, I'll just apply online for a grant or send a letter." Try to find someone who, even if they're not directly related to fundraising, can get your pitch or your proposal or application into the right hands, and they'll think, "Oh, well, because John handed this to me, let's take a look at it. I know we have guidelines and budgets and all that, but there's something about this guy..." Try to find someone who can cut through the clutter and get your proposal ahead of the 8 million others already in the queue.

That advice you gave, is there anything extra you'd add if people are running an international nonprofit? It's not like you can just pop by someone's office in Antwerp, for example.

Afam Onyema: I think it's just going to be more expansive. You have to dig a even deeper in the relationships, because people hear the word "Nigeria" and their antennae go up. They start worrying about scams. "I'll never go to that country. I'll have nothing to do with it. Why should I help you?" People tell me, "Look, I'm not giving to Nigeria. I'm not even giving to GEANCO. I'm giving to you because I know you, I respect you, and I know this is your passion and your life. That's who I trust." Ninety-nine percent of our donors have never stepped foot in Nigeria, so I'll have to tell them our plan and lay out goals and numbers. You have to work even harder to build trust and dig deeper and also spread out wider and talk to even more people. Some people just don't care about global health in Africa or Nigeria. There has to be that baseline of trust. They have to trust you enough to give, and then trust that you'll use that money wisely.

GEANCO's been around a few years, and I'm curious what sort of challenges do established non-profits face that younger ones don't?

Afam Onyema: It's ironic because I still consider us new, young, and small, because our main goal -- building the hospital -- hasn't been achieved yet. Until that happens I personally find it hard to consider us established. But after being around for going on six years now, the challenge is proving to your donors year in and year out that you're still worthy of their support. You have those people who get a rush of excitement and want to help Africa and they give you money one year, then you come back and ask for it again the next year and they give it to you. But you come back that third year and they'll say, "What am I getting for my money? I've done this. It could be over." You have to constantly say, especially with the capital foundation that is committed mostly to doing capital projects, which take years and years and years, it's not sexy. I can't show you a kid being vaccinated right now or a mother delivering a baby safely. Keeping your donors engaged and involved and also getting new ones -- and trying to find ways to make an impact year to year. We just did a medical mission to Nigeria in September and did 17 knee and hip replacements. That's a concrete way for people to support us and realize that if they give us their money, there are people who were crippled who can walk when we're done. People who were in agony will be pain-free because of what you're doing and giving us and empowering us to do.

You have to be rigorous and prove to your donors that the precious few dollars they have to give for charity -- especially now in this we're in this time of extreme need and uncertainty with the economy -- that this is still a worthy cause. They'll be able to achieve their goals through supporting what we're doing.

Contact Us