If you talk to enough nonprofit leaders, you will hear the stories. Many are overworked and underfunded, and their decision-makers are desperate to discover ways to more easily and effectively pursue their mission. And they are often challenged by:
- Paying up front for a website that is never built
- Spending too much on utilities taking money from the mission
- Planning a legacy giving campaign but never getting it off the ground
- Hiring a bookkeeper and redoing their work once they leave
Sometimes these issues occur because the nonprofit leader has limited experience selecting these providers. Sometimes these issues occur because the service provider preys on inexperienced nonprofits. The outcome is the same. Wasted time and money. Time and money that would otherwise go to “The Cause.” Time and money that will never come back.
As Publisher and Editor-in-Chief this global multimedia platform and Chief Encouragement Officer of GoodWorks 360°, I was delighted to have the opportunity to sit down with Michael Barnes, Founder, and CEO of Awakened Innovations, Inc. to learn more about his amazing mission and vision, founded upon a “game-changing” approach to overcoming many of the challenges discussed above:
We’d like to hear about your professional journey before launching Awakened Innovations.
I started out as a scientist. I received my Ph.D. in Molecular Genetics from the University of Cincinnati in 2001 after a degree in Chemistry from Gettysburg College in 1994. I then spent 12 years at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, the number 2 (as of 2018) pediatric hospital in the country! I started out studying arthritis in kids and then built a core facility. Basically, the Cincinnati Biobank is a business inside the institution that helps collect samples for research. Once I built that to where I had originally envisioned it, I decided to try my hand in industry.
It was during my business coaching days that the idea for Awakened Innovations came to me.
I spent a little while as Director of Laboratory Operations at Assurex Health. Assurex is a genetic testing company that helps people get on the right medication for ADHD, PTSD, and depression. They have a fantastic mission helping the millions suffering from these diseases and improving their quality of life. The notes from people who told their stories about how they had not been able to leave their houses for years and were now working again made all those efforts worthwhile! Eventually, I realized that was not the best fit and decided to try my hand at business coaching for a few years. It was during my business coaching days that the idea for Awakened Innovations came to me.
Tell us about Awakened Innovations and the inspiration behind it.
Earlier this year, I was speaking with the executive director of a nonprofit. I talked to her for 1.5 hours at a local Panera Bread. She was almost crying as she told me, “I hired a guy to build my website. I paid him $5k up front. 3 months later he stopped responding to my calls or emails.” She found out later the company had gone out of business. There was nothing to do, nothing to go after. “We lost ALL that money and still don’t have a website.” I felt horrible because there was nothing I could do for her. From all the networking I was doing, I KNEW website developers who would do a great job for her, but it was too late. She then told me about problems with managing volunteers, keeping up with her newsletter, getting the message out about her organization, and raising funds. With tears, she told me,
“You know Mike, I’m about burnt out. I’m about ready to give up on this.”
Her pain was obvious because she BELIEVED in the mission of the organization she had built. She had not, however, counted on how much effort would be required and how many specialists she would need to find. As I lay in bed that night pondering what I had heard, it came to me. There had to be a way to connect nonprofits with great service-providers BEFORE they wasted their money. To get them in touch with the help they needed, not just to survive, but to THRIVE as they worked to change the world!
We help nonprofits save time and money to better pursue their mission. We do this by connecting them with high-quality, vetted, service-providers.
Following the advice of several of my mentors, I decided to “just do it”. So, I sent an email to my database and launched this new effort, Awakened Innovations…nothing like going for broke is there!? With that email, I was reconnected with a friend of mine with 20+ years in nonprofits who had previously considered something similar. I also found a friend with experience building online platforms like the one we needed in order to match nonprofits with service providers. So, we have teamed up to build Awakened Innovations, Inc. We help nonprofits save time and money to better pursue their mission. We do this by connecting them with high-quality, vetted, service-providers. Basically, when a nonprofit needs to contract out, we help make sure they find good people.
We exist to prevent my friend, the Executive Director, from teaming up with service providers who don’t do what they promise and still take the money.
We want to make sure she, and everyone like her, can find the help they need in all aspects of setting up and running their nonprofit. We exist so that the funds of these organizations can go to their mission because these organizations are changing the world. They help victims and survivors of human trafficking. They get people out of poverty, off the street, or off drugs as well as a thousand other missions to change our world for the better.
When did you launch and what’s been your biggest challenge?
Awakened Innovations was launched by an email to my database early in 2018. Challenges in business are 99% personal challenges. You need to master yourself and upgrade yourself constantly in order to move forward in business. The biggest challenge is to continuously push myself. Being an entrepreneur means there is no one else driving you. You have to self-motivate. If you wake up and don’t feel like doing work, you don’t have a boss looking over your shoulder to make sure you get the work done. Thankfully, I have found some great partners. Sandy Nagel, my nonprofit guru, and Malcolm Tester, my engineer. Along with graduates from my Founder Institute class, we continue to push each other and move forward.
What’s your everyday role?
What is NOT my everyday role? While I have people working with me, I am the only full-time person with Awakened Innovations. I network, market, create systems, find solutions, as well as finding new service-providers and nonprofits with whom to speak. If it needs to be done, I’m probably involved.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
Challenges come and go. Right now, my biggest challenge is to get my outbound marketing rolling. I have done well getting the word out through my network and those of my collaborators. ]Now I am building the marketing machine to get the word out on a grander scale. This can be a challenge because nonprofits are often hesitant to trust outsiders because they have been taken advantage of in the past. Building credibility with them will be a big part of the marketing strategy and will take time.
What about your venture’s “social impact”?
Our company is based around social impact. When I was considering what to do after my business coaching days, I considered starting or joining a nonprofit, probably in the anti-human trafficking area since I have great passion around that topic. After thinking about it for a while, I realized that in that position I could help (making up a number) 1,000 people. If I did a great job and doubled our impact, I could help 2,000. With Awakened Innovations, my starting goal is to help 1,000 nonprofits, thereby impacting 1,000,000 people.
Any noteworthy surprises or ‘A-ha’ Moments so far?
One surprise has been the disconnect between nonprofits and for-profit businesses. They both have the vision of working together. Nonprofits want money from the for-profits. For-profits want to help nonprofits to change the world. Unfortunately, the different sectors see the world differently and this often causes problems. You can go to a meeting of nonprofit leaders and hear complaints or comparisons with for-profit businesses. At the end of the meeting the discussion often comes up about how to better engage the for-profits.
You can talk to for-profit leaders and hear the frustration that they don’t see the impact of the money they spend. The concern that the nonprofits don’t know how to track and report progress.
That’s a basic business function so everyone knows it, right? But the for-profit company’s solution often is to find those nonprofits that are good at reporting rather than helping all the nonprofits learn the skill of tracking and reporting metrics. This disconnect shouldn’t be a surprise because we all live in this society and see the tension between the sectors. I guess the biggest surprise is the gulf, talking to people on both sides who see the gulf, yet seeing too little progress to bridge the gulf.
What about outcomes/ impact/success stories?
The best outcomes we create are to sit down with the leader of a nonprofit, listen to them, understand where they are and where they want to go. So often the leader comes to us asking about fundraising. As we talk to them, we learn the real challenges are different. They may need help with volunteer management, board engagement, messaging and marketing, data collection, or a dozen other issues. We can then help them to understand what is actually standing in their way to the success and impact they are striving for and then provide guidance and support to get them on the right track.
While it seems contradictory, the other success is to keep people from starting nonprofits. There are 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the United States. Many people think that running a nonprofit must be easy since “everyone” does it.
The reality is that the regulations are more strict than even running a for-profit organization. Let’s be honest…the federal government is most concerned about taxes and you want to operate tax-free, right? We often find ways to pair passionate souls with existing organizations. Sometimes they start a new program for an existing organization, apply their talents in new and different ways, or even take over from a nonprofit leader who has been looking for a way to step down without having to close down their organization.
What’s next / on the horizon?
With ever-tightening budgets, we need to make sure that every nonprofit organization, and every dollar donated to a nonprofit, is used to greatest impact for their mission.
We continue to build Awakened Innovations, Inc. Our platform is scheduled for launch in Q1 of 2019. Additional revenue streams are planned in the following quarters. Once I have this running smoothly, I plan to reinvest my profits into innovations in nonprofits or social ventures. I believe these sectors are ripe for disruption although disruption in a manner that harnesses the best from the passionate people who give day-in and day-out to their causes. This will be a study in best practices by looking at the most effective nonprofit organizations and finding ways to equip other organizations to make a similar impact. It may be providing centralized services and support, best practices, training, outreach, or many other options. The bottom line is to learn what effective nonprofits currently do and how we can propagate those learnings to all nonprofits. With ever-tightening budgets, we need to make sure that every nonprofit organization, and every dollar donated to a nonprofit, is used to greatest impact for their mission. I don’t know what the answers will be. Finding, and sharing, answers will be my goal.
As an entrepreneur, what’s non-negotiable for you?
That’s an interesting question as there are so many things that are non-negotiable…I would say the most important non-negotiable for me would have to be honesty. If you can’t believe the person you’re talking to or working with, what can you possibly do? We’ve probably all worked with that person who told stories all the time. You could never be certain if s/he was telling the truth or a story. Because of that, you stopped believing anything s/he said. That’s never a good place to be in either as the one not being believed or as the one not be able to trust.
As a natural extension of Michael’s amazing work for the good of nonprofits, we are honored to share that he’s stepped up to join our GoodWorks 360° team as an invaluable Member of our Sounding Board. His presence, coupled with the mission of Awakened Innovations, Inc. enhances our collective passion for easing the burden on nonprofits worldwide.