Taking a Non-Profit to 10 Years

Reflecting on the 10th Anniversary of ACCESS innovation

Exactly 10 years ago, I was put in front of an audience of thousands of people at a church in Brampton, where I was asked to present my experience in the Dominican Republic. I had just returned from an exposure trip through school to see what life was like in the developing world. We did not stay at resorts or have any all-inclusive vacation experiences. For this trip, we stayed with middle-class families, and as a result of living in that situation on the trip for a week, as a grade 10 high school student, I was impacted by my exposure to what life was really like in a developing country, outside of the resort gates.

I was reminded how most of the world lives, with substantially less income and daily spending than Toronto, or even smaller cities throughout North America. It was a big culture shock to see the living conditions, especially in the rural areas and the urban areas within the country Dominican Republic, which everyone sees so much as a resort destination.

From meeting people there especially students or people that should have been in school that were my age, what we learned was that they really wanted to go to school, they wanted education, they wanted to get out of the current situation they’re in, the cycle of poverty, lack of job opportunities, lack of an education. Several of the kids asked us to help them to learn English, because if they knew English it opens them up to a world of other opportunities (whether its locally in tourism or in business or beyond). We know that education is the key to a better future in any society, whether that standard education (grade 1 through high school) or education in the form of learning about entrepreneurship, how to make things, learning how to produce something new — there’s much more that education includes.

Back from that trip, during that presentation, I stood up there and asked for money for school uniforms — because that was the simplest thing that I could think of to bring back (I found out that they could not go to school without a uniform including shoes and proper uniform attire). I thought that was ridiculous and unfair, so the first collection after my first presentation that weekend (March 4th and 5th 2006), my request was to give enough money to purchase uniform for 1 student. We predicted that the freshly named ACCESS would be receiving small change donations, as people tend to give in the collection basket. (The name ACCESS was established the night before as an acronym, “Allowing Children a Chance at Education with School Supplies”, pretty lengthy but it had to be done, as the church said we couldn’t collect anything without a defined cause and confirmed name). I sat outside in the hallway with a basic sign, a few pictures from my trip. I ended up collecting over $8000 that day, which was a huge sign to go ahead with this project.

From a Collection to a Team, Speaking and School Supplies

We continued collecting those funds to send overseas to the contacts that we had in the Dominican Republic who purchased the uniforms over the next several months, and a whole of students were able to go to school. We later hosted School Supplies Drives and sent those overseas as well, got asked to speak at several schools which soon expanded to many, many schools within Brampton, Mississauga, Caledon and beyond about education and providing “access” to a better life and looking at the difference in our lives and lives in the development world — this became a focus of mine.

Sharing the ACCESS story in the very early days included presenting at the elementary school we attended in Brampton.

A few months into it, more team members came on board, and we knew we wanted to do more than just that School Supply Drive in the summer and that initial collection in the spring, so our team started developing. It was made up of some of the people that had gone on the trip and some who hadn’t but who were passionate about the cause, and over the next several years we built the organization. New ideas and energy, working with a strong early vision of education (initially in the form of school supplies and uniforms).

Our annual School Supply Drive in the first few years. Photo from Brampton Guardian.

Formalizing the organization

Even though we had a website and logo from day one, after the 2 years we became registered as a non-profit in Ontario. This was supported by a couple of business teachers at my high school in Brampton, both the process and helping out with the fees to incorporate which we did, we formed a Board of Directors, and as I presented at other events and conferences, we grew the network.

Registering would allow us to more easily receive donations, and eventually, apply for funding — leading to things like an office, 6 years into our history.

Celebrating our Office opening at Brampton’s Community Door in June 2012.

Expanding to local programming & beyond traditional education

We learned that there were a lot of opportunities locally to continually get involved with and promote, that didn’t necessarily involve fundraising for overseas projects, so it would raise awareness and still empower other people to take action. We ended up hosting conferences called “Youth Making a Difference”, YMAD for short, attended by high school students from accross the entire region in both school boards.

These initial Youth Making a Difference large-scale conferences were used to help high school students for their passions and expose them to social justice opportunities. I think it’s key to get involved when you are a student, and if making a difference and social justice are part of your life at that age, it shows up later in life in the decisions you make. So we hosted the YMAD conference for several years, and it ended up evolving to a what we’ve done more recently in the last couple of years.

The new YMAD is more like a full-day workshop that is skills-based and covers social justice issues and inspiration. However, it’s more focused on taking action on individual issues and topics where students can actually make a difference that day. At YMAD, we talk about the skills they need to make a difference — everything from marketing to fund raising to different skills, and around what you need to launch a project or an organization. From there, we got to see more impact that was happening and got invited to see schools that had applied what they learned at our conferences. We received an award for this new format (Social Good Design Award), which I thought was an amazing way to tie in our passions for creativity and design with our passions for social community work, and overall making a positive difference.

Over the last 10 years we have evolved from solely focussing on school supplies of school uniforms of the developing world to also empowering youth leaders locally and our tagline for ACCESS right now is educate, empower and inspire. This covers all the work that we do.

Education is beyond the curriculum you typically get at school — it includes life skills and job skills. It includes opening up people’s minds to the projects and problems that need solving in their own communities.

Sponsoring a university student where only 1% have a degree

Along the lines of problem solving for their own communities, we sponsored a student from Haiti along the way. We took on the challenge of sponsoring his entire university career, which was paid for through fundraising and some generous donations. Note that in Haiti, only about 20% receive a high school level education, and only 1.1% make it to the university level. So this was an exciting opportunity and would be a significant deal to see him graduate.

Our University student. Photo taken during my visit to Haiti in 2010 post-earthquake.

In the first year of sponsoring the student, the 2010 earthquake happened in Haiti. This was obviously a huge challenge, because everything was put on hold in the whole country — the university being one of them, there were damages to the school. Thankfully we were connected with a generous family that was willing to host him in this Texas, where he could actually continue his university there. He continued there, a year behind as a year was lost in Haiti. This student ended up graduating from university and has gone back and is helping his community to do social justice and community throughout his studies, and will continue when he is fully back home in Haiti. A success story 5 years later that we want to continue to follow. We hope to go to Haiti and support work with this particular student, and the amazing work his parents do for the community.

Transitioning team sizes

Starting off with a casual group of friends back in 2006 including students who had gone on the Dominican trip, the team evolved throughout the years to include one-time volunteers in the early days, to having a team of nearly 30 people all with formal role and a Board of Directors, to management positions to roles in each “department” — like our youth programming department with its own director, a finance department, an international team who’s job had several role within it who helped select projects, manage international contacts, research, and more. We grew ACCESS with our 100% volunteer team and a lot of people ask — how do we do this without being paid and how do we continue to do it as a completely youth-led, volunteer initiative. Well, I don’t see how we would be able to fund salaries for 20+ people at the same time, that’s quite a substantial organization operating budget, so we made it work. Keeping in mind everyone was either a high school student, university student, or had just recently graduated. Regardless: It’s passion, dedication, faith, humanity, hope, motivation, optimism, justice.

The last few years we had scaled that back, acknowledging that a lean model would be best.

When we received funding from the Ontario government, we had 2 full years of funding, and that included funding for a couple of part time staff, support staff, admin related work. It also included funding for office space where we located ourselves in Brampton, and this was a great opportunity to outreach to other organisations, to make tons of partnerships to mentor youth directly, to bring in student groups and host events and workshops through years, it was amazing to be there (again with part time staff, and awesome teams members), to have some funding to put behind our initiatives, workshops and events and our conferences. That was an amazing time, during which I had been graduating from university and I had the chance to really dive-in and work and make it a success. We learned however, that to compete with more established organizations, we had to pick and choose the projects we could be most effective at and focus because there are endless ideas and dreams that we want to accomplish and you want to help and people want to collaborate with you, but we really needed to pick what we could focus on.

After the funding we moved office supplies back home to my parents’ house in Brampton and had to think about what we were going to do and how the organization was going to change — going from a large format with an office, many team members and volunteers, part time staff to then zero of that, followed by just the core members and our board of directors. I had to do a lot thinking and make some decisions (many of which were not formally made, and time continued on, as it happened organically). Essentially, that new model of continuing to host our annual workshop in the smaller format and continuing to speak at workshops throughout the year (less of our own exclusively ACCESS-run events and fundraising and focus more on supporting youth-led initiatives locally) is what came next. We also had university chapters, and having these student groups contributing to our fundraising was great, adding to occasional presentation or workshop donations, but we were no longer actively hosting our own fundraisers. Since our provincial grant funding ended, we’ve been working with smaller groups with grants, and helping them to make a larger impact than ACCESS could have on its own.

Supporting today’s young change-makers

The impact we’ve been making in recent years that I have been personally focusing on involves mentoring youth groups that are starting up locally. When I started, in grade 10, there was very little support for youth-led organizations or for non-profits — very few accessible funding oppourtunities, any type of registration support or shared spaces. There were also very frustrating of barriers, from renting a venue having issues with creditability to get funding. All of this and more were huge struggles along the way, so I ended up really relating to the future of youth that are starting up today, and ended up created ACCESS innovation.

We help youth with ideation, strategy, program development, branding and more.

This is essentially our direct mentorship and services for youth lead organizations that hope to make a social impact — which includes non-profits and social purpose businesses, students who want to make a difference and need some assistance. When you are starting an organization, there so many factors — it is an uphill battle from the technical prospective but also from all the services you need, the guidance/direction, the contacts you need, and having built theses up especially in the Peel region and Toronto, over the years I really wanted the ability to pass that down to these other group and help them out, and combining some of the contacts and then resources, but also the services such as design, branding, marketing, helping them out with the websites, sharing some tools, and recommendations on things like social media and how to effectively use it for you as a group.

I’ve become really passionate about helping the current set of local youth-led groups along the way. From a group that teaches other students to code, to an entrepreneurship conference, to a website replacing our own blog.

A number of the groups we’ve mentored and worked with throughout the last year (all photos from 2015).

When it comes to other groups I talk a lot about collaboration over competition. This is something we confirmed in the 2 years in our office space, it became something we really wanted to focus on and have made this very clear throughout Peel Region, helping groups to collaborate and make connections.

(As you’ll notice I haven’t mentioned any specific names throughout, but I really want thank everyone for their amazing role that they played and it really is a lot of different people that helped throughout 10 years, many coming and going, some sticking around — some playing some very substantial roles and some playing roles that make one connection that could be a substantial part in our history — so there is a huge list of lot of people to thank.

Our organic team and the “ACCESS innovation” model

Currently we have a very lean model — although it’s our 10th year and have so much behind us, so many partnerships and accomplishments — it has boiled down to myself managing all the email communications, social media and pulling in various volunteers and teams members when needed.

A key example of this is when host a full-day VISIONS retreat for another youth-led organization. This is one of the things we do as part of ACCESS innovation which involves bringing in a couple of our team members (who are now all working professionals — not simply students anymore, and so it’s a different model where we’re not hanging around in an office, or having weekly or monthly meetings, it’s more organic communication). This structure has been boiled down within the last year to what opportunities I can take on personally as the continuous representative of the ACCESS brand, the person who connects the dots between our organization and other youth-led organizations and partners in the greater Toronto area, where I’m happy to speak as the founder of ACCESS or as an individual or as a creative business owner (my marketing/design company is completely separate from ACCESS, though I’m still very happy to offer creative services at no cost to these youth led groups whenever possible).

A reminder that things have changed — going from myself to a handful of casual team members to a larger team with formal positions, to a couple of full/part time office staff, to the leaner model today of having a group to rely on for ideas and advice and helping to facilitate when needed, not having to run on that same level that we were all putting in during the early years.

I’m fully aware of how organizations evolve and change and adapt and take a stand and do something different, and they continue learning — it’s a long journey, and we’re taking the side roads, not the highway.

We are working on new funding to make it easier for myself and our network to streamline and prioritize these important services to youth — in addition to branding development and funding, the deep work of organizational mentorship, helping youth making connections (those invaluable links from potential partnerships to venues, speakers, suppliers — things that take hours and hours and can be painful to organize). It’s about oordinating and just connecting those links — 10 years worth of experience and knowledge, and that’s really what I want to pass on through ACCESS.

What we’re Funding in our 10th year

Throughout our tenth year, ACCESS is going to be allocating a majority of the funds we raised from the international side over the majority of ACCESS’ history (not so much in the last couple of years, these are funds raised by the hundreds of school presentations, events, fair-trade products sold, and more, all to raise money for the international projects). We will be transforming those funds into impact over the next year. This includes a few overseas projects with our original international partners, and supporting some youth-led groups who can grow the funds and allocate them to larger projects. I look forward to seeing the impact this hard-earned money will make, which we’ve made a very conscious effort for the longest time to not spend on any of our operations, supplies, or promotions — it’s all been saved up over the last 10 years for this.

I’m extremely excited to see the impact and the legacy of ACCESS.

And a huge Thank You

I would like to extend an overdue thank you to everyone for their support — from attending a single event or sharing a single post on social media, to making a donation or volunteering in any capacity — it has beeen incredibly appreciated. And to my family and close friends for supporting me along the way, listening to all the stories, struggles and successes, thank you for keeping this alive and making such a positive impact through ACCESS.