How to Spend a Million Dollars

Our first million-dollar revenue year didn’t happen as we had planned.

Photo courtesy of Flickr

By Christen Brandt & Tammy Tibbetts

When we started She’s the First, we never thought it’d turn into a million-dollar girls’ education nonprofit. It was supposed to live as a side project, our own small puzzle piece to snap into the bigger picture of a better world. But three years into it, all of that changed.

In December of 2012, we were about to hit our first $200,000 year. We had both quit our magazine jobs, had just hired Tammy as the first paid employee, and were living day to day on one-dollar pizza slices and Trader Joe’s frozen lunches.

But we were also sitting in the blue velvet seats of the Pasadena Civic Auditorium in Los Angeles, where the Emmys happened for 21 years, waiting for the start of an awards show of our own. It was our national TV debut, a live program recognizing nonprofits from around the country. We had spent weeks campaigning and collecting votes for the top prize: One million dollars.

One million dollars sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? It was 2,000 times more than Christen’s monthly rent. It could pay for Tammy’s gym membership for 1,000 years. And it was five times our entire organizational budget. And we knew we were going to get it. We had told every person we knew, and didn’t know, in what felt like the entire universe. We used kitten photos and bought people drinks and promised many things we didn’t have, all in exchange for a few more votes. We even got Alicia Keys and Miley Cyrus to tweet to their fans in support of this organization no one had heard about yet. And we knew our million-dollar miracle was in the bag.

Sitting in those seats, wearing designer dresses loaned to us and makeup professionally applied, we felt like Hollywood stars, an absolutely bizarre feeling for two twentysomething women still occasionally attending events for the free food.

When our category was up, a video reel played to highlight the five nonprofit nominees. We clutched each other’s sweaty palms as our hearts thumped. Cameramen were stationed by each nonprofit leader, so that when the television screen split, all of America would see the reactions on our faces. Our presenter, actress Jenna Elfman, stood on stage with the envelope that would unveil our million-dollar destiny.

Except, when she opened it and announced the winner, she didn’t say “She’s the First.”

Our smiles froze, but our hands clenched even tighter. Our hearts broke into a million pieces. We had let down all the girls we were going to send to school. We thought about going home, empty-handed, to all of those friends and supporters who had campaigned so hard for votes, and we tried to find ways to make the loss easier on them — and in the process, on ourselves, too.

The only thing we could do was to keep moving, and to vow to ourselves that one day we would become a million-dollar annual revenue organization. We didn’t get the job done with Hollywood glitz and glam, but we knew how we would: With grit. With determination. With an endless and indefatigable pursuit of what we knew the world needed — more girls in school.

Fast-forward and drumroll, please…

We are so proud to tell you that in 2015, we did it. She’s the First surpassed one million dollars in annual revenue! Rather than coming as a one-time prize from one big grantor, it came from thousands of grassroots donations, hundreds of fundraisers, many loyal recurring donors, and dozens of foundation and corporate partners. And in 2016, we’re going to do it all again.

So, how do you raise a million dollars?

Hard work, of course! Having a strong board, highly engaged campus chapter network, peer-to-peer fundraising campaigns, stellar media coverage, daily social media updates, and thoughtful donor communication all factor in. So does an endless belief in the power of your cause. There really aren’t any secrets to this. You learn as you go, and relationships are everything. So, let’s talk about what’s far more exciting.

How we spent a million dollars.

For She’s the First, what a million dollars means is this: We have provided quality education scholarships to 647 girls from 11 different countries — most recently, Sierra Leone, which is now Ebola-free and reopening schools. Our girls work hard too, so that we’ll renew their scholarships annually up to their graduation date, meaning we’ve now funded more than 1,722 years of education. 100% of the money that people donate for our scholarship fund goes directly to our partner schools and programming for the girls. More than 60% of our funds support these scholarships.

We’ve got another programming fund at She’s the First, and that’s for our campus chapters, of which there were 177 by the end of 2015, at high schools, colleges, and universities. Not only do the chapters raise money to directly support the STF Scholars, but we’re also giving them leadership training, mentorship, and global awareness through a dynamic, cross-cultural curriculum that involves our Scholars.

Now, more than a million dollars later, we’ve got student advocates all over the U.S. and across the globe, all talking about the importance of girls’ education. We have STF Scholars going for master’s degrees and working in their local communities. We have a world that’s just a little closer to reaching education equality.

STF Scholar Isha in Sierra Leone; photo by Kate Lord

Isha only represents point one percent of how the million dollars was spent in 2015, but the $1,000 that funded her scholarship has made 100% of the difference in her life. Isha has only one year left before she reaches graduation in Sierra Leone, a milestone she couldn’t afford to reach except for the generosity of She’s the First donors this past holiday season. Isha’s family was displaced by war 15 years ago, and both of her parents passed away during the Ebola epidemic — but that point one percent of one million dollars earmarked for her means that Isha has a support system that will ensure she not only reaches graduation, but that she also excels beyond it.

As hard as it was to not “win” a million dollars when we put our hearts on the line for it, in retrospect, we can appreciate the value of earning it. Now, we are ready for it. We know how to spend it. Depending on the disposable income of the networks you can tap, it may not be as difficult for you to raise a million dollars as it was for us. But no matter how much money you have, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to give away effectively. That takes tact and experience, which we were able to develop by working closely with our partners and chapters in the three years following that awards show.

The time for universal quality education has come. It is overdue. And we are committed to raising millions more dollars to continue the systemic, long-term change we are making, one student leader at a time.

Ironically, two days before we reached the million dollar mark, a message popped into our inbox from Anastasia, a 17-year-old high school student in Connecticut, who had a fictional million dollars to give away for a class project. She explained, “We were able to choose a charitable organization to pretend to donate one million dollars to. I chose to donate my money to She’s the First. I admire your mission and philosophy, and also see the immense value in girls’ education…So, I was wondering, how would you use one million dollars for She’s the First?”

We always knew 17-year-olds had the power to see the future as it should be.

STF Scholars in Sierra Leone; photo by Kate Lord