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January 16, 2024

Why I started a nonprofit organization, and why you shouldn’t, unless you’re ready to put in the work. (My longest blog ever).

by Tony Gapastione
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This blog has been something I’ve wanted to write for a while. I may have been procrastinating… or avoiding it because it brings up just a few (read: all) of my insecurities and fears. 

But what better way to confront those issues than by addressing them publicly for all to read, right? 

We’ll see. Let me grab some salt and vinegar chips to ease my pain.

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Why start a nonprofit? (Many have asked me this).

And why did I start BraveMaker, specifically?

 I wanted to document my founding/executive directing process of BraveMaker for three reasons. 

  1. I need to reflect on it myself so I can be reminded of WHY I did and keep going into our sixth year. 
  2. I want others, especially our current supporters and future partners, to know how important their support is because I appreciate it so much. And I need it, truly, I can’t do this work without those who believe in us, in me and our BraveMaker vision.  And…
  3. I want to write this because I regularly have friends (and curious strangers) who want to know the ins and outs of charity work because they are considering starting the journey themselves. (There are currently 1.5 million in the U.S) and some stats say 30-50% will close within five years for a variety of reasons, some being lack of strategy, empty optimism or lack of funds. So, I hope this blog is helpful to nudge those who need it to take the entrepreneurial leap. And for others, I hope this turns them off from starting a charity because it should not be even started without a true understanding of the impact it can have on a person. Although, I believe, if it’s in you, you won’t be able to turn it off. 

Why did you start BraveMaker?

I’ll start here.

I’ve always loved filmmaking. I was acting for quite some time, most of my life. I was beginning to dabble in the screenwriting/producing/directing part of filmmaking and loving it. I might say it was overtaking me, as a passion, that filled my soul. 

At the time, I had also been working a steady job with a church as a faith/community leader, for twenty years. I felt myself burning out, discontent and craving change. It’s a long time for one job, I was proud of my work but I wanted more freedom to share my evolving passions about social justice issues that needed to be addressed (like racial justice, disability representation, LGBTQ+ rights/homophobia and exclusion, gender equity, mental health and more). My passions seems to be met with conflict (many factors) but they were the type of obstacles that you don’t buckle down to conquer because they were emotionally draining and too heavy to bear honestly. I’m still processing that season of life. All this to say,  There were signs, the type that I took were from Divine messages that it was time to move on from that role and create something on my own, where I could be my own boss and do what I felt was right for my work and vocational calling.

I always loved the creative process. Even the parts where you try and fail and deal with the embarrassment and rejection of people’s opinions. 

I had started another organization before from the ground up that served those who found themselves without homes and addictions. I cast the  vision, trained volunteers and created a community impact nightly on the streets, literally on the ground doing the work of providing meals, support and when we could provide temporary housing. I loved that stuff. It wasn’t easy, but I saw the positive impact on people’s lives. I eventually passed this organization on to another leader in which I mentored, sat on the board, helped it become its own 501c3 nonprofit and once it was strong enough on its own moved forward and I am no longer involved.

Back to BraveMaker. 

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So with the past experience in 2017, I knew it was time to start something new that would both fuel me creatively and make an impact in these justice concerns raising in my heart. The previous organization I started did not have an artistic element to it. So, for BraveMaker I combined my passion for creativity with doing good in the world. Our purpose is to educate, entertain and create community experiences for justice, diversity and inclusion. When the idea of BraveMaker came, I googled the name BraveMaker and it did not exist, so I bought all the URLS (.com/.org) and it was official. I was building something new. It was time to spread my wings and fly. 

I didn’t realize I would be flying into one of the most challenging seasons of my life, including the Pandemic and a downturn in the economy but I am still here, moving forward and pushing through the obstacles that are the type I know I should be. 

Why did you start BraveMaker as a nonprofit, a charity? Don’t you want to make money?

One of the myths of nonprofits is that they can’t make money. (Read this article for more on that and other myths).  We can make money. Although it’s not easy, nonprofits can have robust resources, staff and salary packages, although many do not. Part of this myth might be that many nonprofits are humble, boutique, middle class (or below) organizations that choose a charitable direction out of desire to do good in the world. Money isn’t our main priority but we value living a life of purpose and passion. We aren’t tech companies that can generate millions of dollars. Although there are nonprofits that do make millions. Sounds dreamy… 

We can raise money yes but we also can make money by putting on events and charging for tickets. We can create and sell merchandise and host paid classes which we do at BraveMaker. We can salary a staff and have nice things like insurance which we do not have yet but I hope someday we will. 

Currently we have no full time staff and I work three other jobs to pay for my own insurance. That’s why we need more support. So hint, hint, if you ever were thinking about becoming a donor to BraveMaker, now is the time. See here.  We have FORTY-TWO who donate every month (If you do the math, over almost six years of existence, that’s only SEVEN people gained a year, and we’re trying to grow it, double it and triple it so we can get after big things. 

So again…why start a nonprofit?

Nonprofit or charitable organizations are structured in a way that they can benefit from charitable funds and the generosity of individuals and corporations as well as get access to aid and grants that are not available to other companies. Because of my twenty year tenure at my previous job, a nonprofit, it was not only all I knew, it was something I felt good at and saw work successfully. I was able to cast vision and see people be inspired to bring it to life through their donations and volunteer hours. I saw first hand that contributions and volunteering fueled community programs, changed a lot of lives and allowed me and my family to flourish for years. Despite the burnout and negative experiences I may have experienced, I had a huge handful of real supportive friendships (and still do) that support me today both emotionally and financially. It’s truly humbling.

That’s the beauty of charitable work I have been a part of and why I still give my life to it today. Don’t get me wrong, though, I do dream of more stability and I can say I’m not jealous of people who have regular jobs with benefits like regular teeth cleanings. But I’m sure I would likely be complaining about a heap of other things at a job that didn’t fit my wiring.  

How do you start a nonprofit, practically? 

Practically speaking, you need to file a lot of paperwork. Google it. It’s not something you just decide and then declare it. It can take time so plan your strategy. You’ll need to ensure legally that you have all your administrative systems in order. You’re dealing with the government and IRS, take it seriously. 

I got very overwhelmed with some of this. It felt like a lot of paperwork, but if you want to be legit, you have to do this. Get help. Don’t do it alone. 

In some cases there are easy ways to make it happen with sites like this. It took me a little under six months to get my official paperwork from the IRS stating that we were official. But one of the cool things was during that time you are legally allowed to begin fundraising. You just have to be careful in case you are denied you would have to return all the money so don’t spend it. Bank it! 

Here’s ten things you need to do to start a nonprofit. 

Let me quickly summarize.

  1. First, what’s the name of your organization? Figure out what you’re about. What are you doing? You’ll have to write your articles of incorporation (think of it like your organization’s constitution). Get it all typed out. Find a lawyer to help you with this!
  2. Design a logo, choose font and color palette
  3. Register your charity. Get your EIN number. Start a website
  4. Apply for your nonprofit status with your state so you can begin fundraising
  5. *Build your board of directors, assign roles, schedule meetings (see more on that below) 
  6. Open your bank account, Venmo, Paypal. Zelle, text to give.
  7. Announce how people can donate. You’ll need to have good accounting and bookkeeping skills, get help! You have to send a lot of receipts to all the donors you’re going to get 
  8. Start an email list for communications, build it, offer free stuff 
  9. Begin fundraising. This is a full time job. Take meetings, find corporate sponsors and individual supporters. I’ve been doing this almost six years and I just reached FORTY individual donors who give every month 
  10.  Do the work! Diversify. Individual/corporate donors, merchandise, events, classes. Figure out a plan to be sustainable. Keep fundraising. Adjust and evolve. Have fun and remember why you started in the first place 

*Build a board of directors.* a bit more: 

My first two years as a nonprofit we had an amazing board of passionate ideas. They were business professionals, artists and nonprofit leaders themselves. After our fourth year we had what every organization goes through, board turnover. Leaders need to step down and mentor new leaders. We were still in a Pandemic and things fell through the cracks a bit, we had to reformulate as our organization was reforming (lots more online workshops and film screenings and we started our weekly live show on Youtube). Now, I have a great leader who is our board vice president and is supporting me and the organization like never before as both a cheerleader, supervisor, fundraiser and all around champion of our organization. We need more, though. 

I still need to grow our board by three or four people. Their job is to champion our mission, attend events, fundraise (each board of director gives or gets an agreed upon amount each year) and provide checks and balances for me as executive director. Meet regularly. Give feedback and be open to what we can do better as a team. If you think you’d be a good candidate for the board of directors email adrienne@bravemaker.com, our VP (shown on my left below).

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How do you actually survive doing your work?  

How do you define survive? I’m still trying to figure that out.  Self care and taking care of your health must be a priority. 

As a nonprofit leader, I have to work harder, more and longer hours to make this work sustainable. There are no guarantees that I will have a paycheck if I don’t. People often ask me how (and why) I do so much, commenting on all they see me doing on social media or the events I post. I try to be as honest as I can. I love this work but I also have to say yes a lot to make the ends meet. Do I struggle with workaholism? Maybe. But I’ll say it again, as an entrepreneur (some call it solopreneur) you have to do a lot.  I have to wear a lot of hats as a small business. I am CEO and creative director but also director of operations, fundraiser, director of marketing, social media manager, and custodian.

At the time of writing this, it’s mid December 2023. I’m looking forward to taking time off for the holidays but I also have a lot of anxiety about it. The end of the year means the end of our fiscal year and many nonprofits receive a large percentage of their budget as people give their end of the year gifts to be able to write them off on their taxes. So I have to monitor our email and banking accounts. And of course, our vendors are sending in their final invoices. It feels as if we are just trying to stay in the black!

If you support BraveMaker. Thank you. You help me breathe easier. 

You partner with me to empower artists, elevate brave stories and storytellers and create impactful community experiences through our film screenings and film fests. 

(If I had more resources and support I could be more creative and more productive and mentor more artists and make more films).

If  you want to start a company (make a film, achieve a big goal of any kind), you might have to work harder than you expected or ever have before.  I work many part time jobs.

 I am constantly fundraising.

But if you are motivated and can’t get your idea out of your  head,  you will do whatever it takes to see it become successful. 

With rising costs in insurance, accounting on top of venue rentals, subscriptions and administrative and legal costs we have got to find a way to get more partners. 

I watched this video that I made in January of 2023. 

In it I talk about our monthly donors, and at the time we had 29.  Currently I have forty-two (42) people who regularly donate to our organization’s operation expenses. Two of those are family members, five of those are our committed team volunteers. 

What’s the goal for BraveMaker? 

Have I been transparent enough?  Running a nonprofit is  incredibly hard, for me at least. It’s my passion to see lives changed and creativity abound… that keeps me going. So what’s our hope for 2024? 

  1. My goal is to make more meaningful movies. Feature films and eventually create TV shows. I’d like to make our second feature film in 2024 and another round of shorts (at least four!). 
  2. My goal is to create more opportunities for communities to gather and experience these stories and talk about them.  That translates into monthly film screenings and events with a bigger, more influential film fest. I want Redwood City to be a filmmaker destination, big premieres, huge conferences, labs, grant-giving which translates into supporting more makers!
  3. My goal is to grow our acting school and launch more creative careers. I currently teach four classes a year and my co-teacher, Nick Musleh, is teaching four classes a month, Tuesdays/weekly.
  4. My goal is to grow our team and have a healthy, vibrant, competent, creative staff who can champion our values and empower more filmmakers, host more film screenings, improve the entertainment landscape with more opportunities, representation and creativity. To do this, we’d need to raise $250,000+ yearly. Join us? www.BraveMaker.com/Donate

I was at an event recently and two people, strangers to me, said they followed me on Instagram and watched the work of BraveMaker from afar. Their comments indicated they were impressed with all the work we had accomplished and alluded that we seemed to be way more productive than was truly possible. 

And I had to agree.

LET ME TOOT BRAVEMAKER’S HORN A BIT:

We, in one way or another, produced ten short films this year. From our Academy school, production company and fiscally sponsored projects. 

  • We hosted 6 acting classes in 2023. This included a one person show class, four on-camera film classes that made short films and one all technique and scene study.
  • We hosted three screenwriting workshops online.
  • Celebrated over 200 podcast interviews recorded!
  • We put on our 3rd annual Halloween extravaganza and…
  • We put on our fifth annual film festival with over three thousand audience members in attendance. 

This is a lot. And it hasn’t come without a cost. It has cost lots of money, time, resources, volunteer hours and a bit of anxiety and sleeplessness on my part, but so worth it to see the impact we have created and how my own soul has been deeply satisfied with all we’ve accomplished.

I have much more to say on this.

You can listen to an audio version of this on our podcast if you’d like. (Please like, subscribe and share).
If you would like to join a support group for your own organizational and career growth, check out my weekly Tuesday mastermind here.  

And maybe it help you not cope by eating junk food, like I do.

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Tony Gapastione

Tony Gapastione is a screenwriter/producer and director living in Redwood City, California. He founded and executive directs BraveMaker, a 501c3 nonprofit arts charity dedicated to educate, entertain and create community experiences around justice, diversity and inclusion. He and his wife Wendy have three daughters, one labradoodle and two guinea pigs...all of which end up in his movies in some way. His first feature film, "Last Chance Charlene" will be on VOD, February 2023. Connect with him on Instagram: @tonygapastione
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