Zealous Good’s Founder on the Challenges of a Non-Profit

This is the story of an engineering major from Northwestern and former Bain consultant who decided to embrace her entrepreneurial spirit for the good of others. 


Brittany Martin Graunke created the online marketplace Zealous Good, which connects donors with non-profits for the exchange of non-monetary contributions. Think of it as a dating site for donations. I sat down with Brittany to talk about her experiences, inspiration and challenges as an entrepreneur.

What inspired you to create Zealous Good?

Brittany Martin Graunke: I first came up with the idea while I was working at United Way of Metropolitan Chicago. I saw there are some great innovations around monetary donations, including text-to-give and project-based fundraising. However, there was nothing supporting non-monetary donations or donating of goods and services. The recession was also in full [force] and I kept hearing people say they wanted to know how to give more than just money.

So I started thinking, if someone has a TV or art supplies to donate, how do they find out what local charities actually need their donation? There was simply no system or process in place.

I have a background in engineering and consulting so I think I envisioned a solution for this problem differently than most in the non-profit sector. I started working on finding if there was a way to develop a process around in-kind donations and the result was zealousgood.com.

What skills do you think are necessary to be a successful entrepreneur?

Brittany Martin Graunke: Motivation and focus. Being an entrepreneur isn’t easy work by any standard. You are creating something from scratch and in some cases, creating something people have never heard of before. I think entrepreneurs need to be motivated and have a fundamental drive to prove the value of what they are doing and creating. Motivation is what will keep you working harder than the next person.

Focus is also important. I’ve found there are different ways you can twist and turn your idea when launching a startup. Listen to feedback always, but realize you can’t do it all. If you are all things to all people, you won’t have much unique value. By being focused on key issues you’ll be able to stay true to your mission. And what will result is a better product.

What advice would you offer to other entrepreneurs on starting a business?

Brittany Martin Graunke: I’m tempted to say just go out there and do it! But my real advice would be to talk to people about your idea. When I was researching and planning for Zealous Good, I spoke to nearly 200 people about the idea before I officially started. I wanted to know as much as I could about startups, technology, social enterprises, legal issues, accounting, marketing… you name it, and I talked to somebody about it. People will gladly help you if ask them and if you respect their time. And don’t forget to say thank you!

If you could do anything in the process over, how would you have done it differently?

Brittany Martin Graunke: Like most non-technical founders of web-based businesses, I wish I knew how to program or write code. I built the initial website in WordPress and it had a ton of limitations. It got the job done to pilot the idea, but wasn’t scalable or able to easily add features. I would have loved to have started teaching myself how to program when I first realized that my solution for in-kind donations would be web-based. While I still may not have been able to code the entire website, at least I’d have a little experience under my belt and know more website development.

What’s the best business advice you’ve received?

Brittany Martin Graunke: “Listen to your customer.” At the end of the day, Zealous Good isn’t about me. It’s about the charities we work with and the donors that use our site to find charities that need their items. I’m constantly listening to better understand their needs and to see how Zealous Good can help. My biggest fear with Zealous Good is building something that people don’t need or can’t use. By constantly listening and paying attention to the people using the website, I’m working my hardest to avoid that happening!

Where you do you find business inspiration?

Brittany Martin Graunke: Wow, that’s a good question. First of all, I’m incredibly inspired by different systems. I think it’s the Northwestern engineer in me but I love observing when a system is in place or needs to be. For example, I love examining public transportation, Subway shop assembly lines, airport security, online checkouts -- it’s all fascinating to me. For whatever reason, I love thinking through why that system works or doesn’t and how you can apply it to other areas of life such as connecting people through in-kind donations.

Secondly, there is a great social enterprise started here in Chicago called GiveForward. Their site provides individual fundraising pages for people facing medical challenges and the expenses associated. The founders Desiree and Ethan have been instrumental in guiding me as I started Zealous Good. I think they have done such a phenomenal job creating an easy tool to solve a formerly challenging situation and I am constantly looking to them to see how they market, raise awareness, provide customer service… For me they are a great inspiration of a successful mission-based business startup.

Lastly, I have a wonderful husband who inspires me to be my best and always think of how Zealous Good can get to the next level. He is an amazing source of day to day inspiration.

Rachel Gillman has an insatiable appetite for dining
out and an obsession with the restaurant industry. She's also
fascinated by entrepreneurs and enjoys uncovering the story behind
building a business from scratch. You can follow her on Twitter

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