#IAmNonprofitReady featuring Karen Krejcha of Autism Empowerment
For the first in our #IAmNonprofitReady story series, I had the pleasure of speaking with Karen Krejcha from Autism Empowerment.
We discussed the many challenges she has faced in building her nonprofit from the ground up, how she has used online training to engage her Board of Directors, and what advice she has for anyone starting a nonprofit in their community.
Tell us about Autism Empowerment
Autism Empowerment is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization dedicated to enriching and empowering the lives of children, teens, adults and families in the Autism and Asperger communities locally, regionally and worldwide.
We serve all ages, abilities and ethnicities. All our programs and services promote Four Foundational Pillars of Positivity: Accept, Enrich, Inspire and Empower.
The vision we work toward is an inclusive society that accepts and respects all youth and adults on the autism spectrum and empowers all people to reach their highest potential.
Key Programs (more details are available on our website):
- Autism and Scouting – sensory Friendly Scouting for Youth of All Abilities, Cross-Scouting Community Training Summit, Autism & Scouting Youth Leadership Training
- Autism Empowerment Radio Podcasts – over 135 free shows available on-demand
- Autism Serves – inclusion-based volunteerism for individuals, families, nonprofits and business entities
- Community Outreach – resource Referral, In-Person and Online Support Training, Men’s Autism Support Group, Self-Advocates Autism Support Group, Social Media, Autism Empowerment YouTube channel, Blogging, Exhibiting, Parent Education Workshop Series, Special Events
- Signature Event – 3rd Annual Easter Egg Hunt for Acceptance of All Abilities & Cross-Disability Resource Fair served 1,400+ attendees and 40 agencies in 2014 (served 450 in 2012 and 1,100+ in 2013)
What is your background and what inspired you to build this organization?
My husband, John, and I co-founded Autism Empowerment in Vancouver, WA in June 2011. Although we both had extensive experience owning our own business as well as working within the corporate world, we were new to the nonprofit sector.
Both of our sons (now 8 and 15) were diagnosed on the autism spectrum in 2008. I was diagnosed a short time later. My youngest son, who was nonverbal at the time needed considerable support, but we only received a simple brochure and were invited to come back a few weeks later if we had any questions.
Soon after, I immersed myself into online autism culture and attended meetings around the state and country. I quickly tired of the doom and gloom and negative messaging that was being promoted by many autism-related organizations in order to secure funding. Messaging which stigmatizes youth and adults on the autism spectrum hurts self-esteem and sends the incorrect message that individuals with autism are to be excluded and not included. I was also disappointed to learn that very few individuals on the autism spectrum were being actively included in significant leadership roles or in advisory capacities in the organizations which were raising the most funds. I didn’t want my sons to grow up in a world where they weren’t accepted or respected and I didn’t want anyone else’s children to feel the same way.
What distinguishes Autism Empowerment as unique from most local and national autism-related organizations is that everyone on the Board of Directors is either on the autism spectrum or closely related to someone who is. Autism Empowerment volunteers and staff are authentic and proactive autism allies with a vision of a better world.
We firmly believe if you want to meaningfully enrich and provide support to youth and adults on the autism spectrum, it is essential that individuals with autism be given a voice in the conversation throughout all facets of program, support and service development. Autism Empowerment proactively includes youth and adults on the autism spectrum in program development and volunteer roles.
What are some of the challenges you have faced in getting Autism Empowerment off the ground?
Like many nonprofits, funding is an ongoing challenge. Our biggest obstacle by far has been raising funds to build capacity and fund programs so we can transition from a volunteer-based grassroots start-up to a thriving, mature and sustainable organization.
Being a strong steward of the funds that have been entrusted to Autism Empowerment is of critical importance to us. Finding the balance of having funds to be able to meaningfully and directly serve our stakeholders as well as to build organizational capacity has also been a challenge but we know it’s paramount for both the short and long-term success of our organization.
We look for opportunities to reduce costs without sacrificing quality and this is one of the reasons we were ecstatic when Gary Borghello, Engagement Manager at Cornerstone OnDemand and Autism Empowerment Board Member, told us about the free education and social networking opportunities available at NonprofitReady.org.
How have you used NonprofitReady.org in support of your mission?
We know how important it is for our Board of Directors and volunteers to have access to quality nonprofit education. Unfortunately this education can often be cost-prohibitive to organizations with smaller budgets. NonprofitReady.org allows us to train our volunteers, staff and Board Members for FREE and the quality of the courses is exceptional.
Being fiscally responsible is very important to us and now money that we would have allocated toward training can go back into the budget to fund projects in service to those in the autism community.
Autism Empowerment has Board Members in Washington, Oregon, Alaska and California. We like the fact that with NonprofitReady.org we can learn at our own pace and that each of our Board Members can take the same course at different times and the information will be exactly the same.
Although there is value to in-person trainings, it’s often hard to retain all the information learned. With NonprofitReady.org we can go back to the same course again and again. Courses are in different formats to accommodate different learning styles and our transcript is always available to us so that we know what courses we have taken.
Because courses are free and you can stop and start them at any time, we are able to sample a wide range of topics and then hone in on what will be most useful to us in supporting our mission.
We are also grateful for the social networking component and look forward to the opportunity to connect with like-minded nonprofits around the world so that we can share challenges and ideas and have a greater social impact.
What are your plans for Autism Empowerment going forward?
We recently reworked our Strategic Plan for the next three years. As excited as we are about launching new programs and expanding others, we need to make sure that the programs and services we currently offer are strong and sustainable for the short and long-term.
We are learning as much on NonProfitReady.org as we can about development, operations and professional effectiveness.
We are also applying for grants, diversifying our revenue streams and seeking out new funding and social venture partners that are interested in supporting positive programs that empower youth, adults and families in the autism and Asperger communities.
Our strategy includes piloting programs locally and then having them replicated regionally and nationally. We have an Autism Empowerment Radio podcast and just launched an Autism Empowerment YouTube channel. We have educational and inspirational podcasts and webinars that are available on demand to anyone with computer or mobile device access.
We also have an Autism and Scouting Leadership Training Program that was piloted in Southwest Washington and is now being utilized in all 50 states.
Our plans for 2015 include hiring me full-time as Autism Empowerment’s Executive Director and my husband John as our Programs Director. We have been filling these roles voluntarily since co-founding Autism Empowerment. Our next hiring plans are a Development Director and Volunteer Coordinator.
What advice would you have for someone who is considering launching their own nonprofit organization?
When we set out to launch Autism Empowerment, it was a calling. We knew we had passion, perseverance and professionalism but we also knew that there was going to be a learning curve in becoming familiar with the rules, regulations, compliance issues, lingo and culture that accompany the nonprofit world.
Here is some advice based on our own personal experience:
- Ask yourself if there is an unfulfilled need and demand in your community for the work you want to do. If similar programs are already being successfully offered by another local nonprofit, you may wish to team up with them rather than reinvent the wheel.
- Pick up a copy of the NOLO book, “Starting & Building a Nonprofit, A Practical Guide.” This book helps walk you through the basics and provides step-by-step instructions for getting your nonprofit up and running in an efficient way.
- If you are looking to become a 501(c)3 tax exempt corporation, pick up a copy of the NOLO book, “How to Form a Nonprofit Corporation.” It provides step-by-step instructions, clear explanations of the law and sample forms that you will need to prepare your articles of incorporation and organizational bylaws.
- Build an effective Board. Your founding Board Members are often people you trust and know who are passionate about your mission, however you will eventually need to reach outside your inner circle to make sure you have a healthy mix of different skill sets, including entrepreneurial, financial, legal, marketing, technical and service-oriented board members.
- Invite your Board of Directors, staff and key volunteers to join NonprofitReady.org. Classes are FREE, accessible and you can go at your own pace. You can also use social learning tools to network with other nonprofit professionals.
- Community networking is important too. Join the local nonprofit network or nonprofit society closest to your area and begin to build relationships by attending local events.
- Try to become involved in community or online coalitions of other nonprofits serving a similar client base. (In our case, we are part of the Clark County Disability Coalition, SW WA Special Education Alliance, Northwest Health Foundation Learning Together, Connecting Communities cohort, Community Autism Network and Safe Kids Clark County.) These groups are great for sharing information about your organization and also partnering together on work that mutually benefits your target audience.
- Share your organization’s story with the community. Have a website and social media presences. Engage in social media and digital storytelling.