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Facing failure: Shutting down the nonprofit you founded

Kari Kehr on starting, then shuttering, a nonprofit to help single people who were fighting cancer by assisting them with the payment of distracting medical bills.

This is my second article in a new Pollen series titled Facing Failure (see Mistakes vs. Failures).  The series will share stories and the lessons learned from business, nonprofit, education, and government sector failures.  The hope for this column is that we are able to learn from other’s failures and strengthen our Pollen community.  If you have a story that you would like to share please see my contact info below. 

After a decade and raising more than $100,000 for national organizations like Susan G. Komen and LIVESTRONG, Minnesota native Kari Kehr wanted to specifically help cancer patients in her home state.  

In 2012, Kari started a nonprofit to help single people who were fighting cancer by assisting them with the payment of distracting medical bills.  A few years earlier, Kari had lost a close friend in her battle with cancer and saw firsthand just how distracting those bills could be.  She recognized how singles lack the financial and emotional support of a spouse or significant other during this very difficult time. 

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Through the hard work of volunteers and the generosity of donors the foundation had quickly raised tens of thousands of dollars to help pay the medical bills of Minnesota singles struggling in their fight with cancer.  Things were taking off but Kari quickly understood the amount of effort that would be required to keep the organization going.  This year she determined that the organization was not sustainable.  In the first year Kari had shouldered a bulk of the enormous effort in addition to her day job.  For her it was an exceptionally difficult decision to shut down the Fuel Your Fight foundation but she knew that she could better use her time and skills to help other organizations.  This is Kari’s story.

Q1: What had prompted you to create your own nonprofit?

A. Four years ago I helped my friend through end stage cancer. As I watched her battle the disease I also watch as she had the stress of a looming medical bill she needed to pay. Instead of focusing on her health, she was worried about how to pay this bill. Her friends and I created a benefit for her and raised the money to pay her bills but it brought to light the need to help others in same situation. Single cancer patients didn’t have a spouse’s salary or benefits to count on.  I wanted to create a foundation that helped people like Cathy to pay their bills and alleviate that stress during their fight. 

Q2: What were some of the biggest challenges in leading your nonprofit with a team of volunteers?

A. The first thing I needed to learn was how to lead friends. Our board was composed of people in my life that believed in the mission and wanted to help. That was an adjustment for me to lead as a leader and not to just ask as a friend. We all respect one another and brought different talents to the table. Leading a volunteer board was never an issue, however finding volunteers that could commit to leading work for our organization was a big challenge and one that I didn’t anticipate.

Q3: What was your fondest memory of the work?

Some of my best memories were speaking with people about their cancer experiences and offering them support both emotionally and through the resources page on our website. People want to know someone is there to support them; it was a great feeling to have them know our foundation could be that in their time of need.

Q4: What was the turning point for you when you decided that the work wasn’t sustainable?

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Getting word out that we were here to help others was difficult. We didn’t plan for marketing. We were naïve to think we would form and people would hear about us through word of mouth and we would be successful.  What we learned was, with all the nonprofits out there, we seemed to be lacking the awareness to grow our support system and identify recipients for our grants.

Q5: How hard was the decision to shut down your nonprofit?

I knew for about five months before we made the actual decision to shut down. We tried every which way to grow our organization.  I met with other nonprofits to learn their best practices and heard over and over we would need a full time person working to grow it in order to be successful. Our board of directors was made up of four women with big full-time jobs. Our passion was there, but the time commitment was not possible.

When we finally made the actual announcement to close down it was very emotional for me.  This work had been a personal mission to make a difference in the name of my friend Cathy.  I had to work through the emotions of feeling like a failure by closing down the nonprofit. I knew that ultimately it was the right decision but it was still extremely sad.

Q6: So where do you and Fuel Your Fight go from here? 

I have always supported the LIVESTRONG foundation and their cancer programs. I plan to continue that work and also get involved with the Angel Foundation here in Minneapolis. It is important to me to maintain my fight in the Twin Cities area. The Angel Foundation is local and helps Minnesotan’s with household expenses while fighting cancer. They are very similar to Fuel Your Fight and we believe that they were a perfect nonprofit to donate our funds to.

Even though Fuel Your Fight is dissolved our webpage is still live. A very important piece of our site was a one-stop shop for resources for cancer patients and their loved ones, and I plan to maintain the site for that and my blog about cancer on a personal level. It is a great feeling to be able to refer people to that site and have them find help… it is where my passion still lies.

Q7. Looking back is there anything that you would have done differently?

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Looking back I should have done a “competitive analysis” of what it takes to run a nonprofit.  The raising of funds had come easy to me, so I had thought the rest would be also.  It wasn’t. We should have met with other nonprofits to learn what it takes to be successful, and then moved forward. 

Q8. Where there any resources that you found helpful in setting up your nonprofit organization?

When setting up our 501c3, we utilized a guidebook that the State of Minnesota had on their website to determine how to legally set up a nonprofit.  The state offers quite a bit of information on their website.  Here are links to a few online resources to help if you’re thinking about starting a nonprofit.


Matt Hunt is the CEO and founder of strategy and innovation consulting firm Stanford & Griggs. With over 20 years of business and technology experience he has a demonstrated excellence in business strategy, innovation, and leadership development with large companies, small companies and non-profit organizations. You can follow Matt on his and Twitter @huntm.

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