Dear Friends and Family of Military with PTSD,
All of us have heard the stories and seen the movies, "On the 10-yard line down by 6 with only 0:02 seconds left on the clock. Will the husky's pull off one of the greatest upsets in history and come out the undefeated champions or will this be the end of the Cinderella story?" As you’re watching you find yourself frozen, really into what is happening and pulling for the underdog. And then finally at the last second the team pulls off some miraculous play. It's a dream come true; it’s a real-life Cinderella storybook ending. Everyone loves those type of endings, and for a moment, everyone watching feels that joy and proud of the achievement. If you think about it, what Non-Profit doesn't dream of having that type of moment, that type of impact through their work? When we launched the "Explosion of Kindness" campaign, our goal was to make an impact and make a difference for veterans and their families by educating communities about how Fireworks can affect veterans and hopefully keep the veterans in the community communicating with their neighbors. Having a powerful enough impact to get people talking about PTSD, that would be our Cinderella story, a successful campaign ending like the story above. And we are happy to report that this. . . is not one of those stories. No, this story is a full-on face plant fail! We are not talking a; you just tripped over your feet; hit a stumbling block type fail. No-no, this is a fail of epic proportions.
I know, that is not what you were expecting to read, so let me first explain. When GlobalGiving challenged us to share a failure of our campaign, we were excited to have this opportunity and share this story with you. See, Military with PTSD was built on the philosophy of "Seeing it from both sides because you can't change what you don't understand." Everything we do is based on personal experience, and we have never been shy about sharing the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to our lives with PTSD. We share those things along with what we have learned so maybe it may help others walking a similar path. And because of that philosophy, the Board at Military with PTSD eagerly accepts GlobalGiving's challenge to share our #FailForward moment. So real quick, let me set the stage for you and give you some key details.
Last year, we shared a photo of a member standing behind a sign he made that stated, "Combat Veteran Lives Here, Please Be Courteous with Fireworks." The image went viral, and everyone kept asking where can they get one. So we obtained permission from the member to mass produce these signs to give out to veterans in 2015. As soon as we had written permission we got right to work. We had some initial technical and layout of the program that had to be addressed first. Things like, we needed a way to collect information from those who would like a sign and get important information like their name, address, and contact email. We needed to be able to verify service to be good stewards of donated money and make sure the signs actually went to veterans, and also to effectively track the number of veterans we were helping. When that was completed, the next phase was creating a budget and a plan to launch this program. After talking to five different sign companies and getting the pricing, we decided due to the cost we would need $10,000 to give away 2,500 18 x 12 signs to veterans including the cost of shipping and shipping materials. With the plan laid out, we were now ready to launch the fundraising campaign that would run on GlobalGiving for their 30 Day Challenge they offer to new nonprofits and utilize the training on fundraising and many other aspects they offer new nonprofits.
Up until this point, it seems like we are doing what needs to be done and making good responsible decisions. Unfortunately, this is where minor mistakes we have made early on, mistakes we don’t even know we have made yet start affecting the outcome. Even though we were pushing the campaign hard through social media, at the end of the challenge we had only raised about $1,400 of the needed $10,000. We decided to regroup and evaluate what we could maybe do differently. Upon talking to members, we realized more were willing to donate, but would like to be guaranteed a sign for their donation. After reassessing our plan and listening to the feedback, we decided to drop the funding goal to a more attainable goal of $5,000 and guarantee a sign to our members that made donations by doing a "get a sign, give a sign."
At this point, we still think we are okay, that this was a minor setback that could be overcome. We had no idea the decisions we were making at that moment, which appears to us to be a bump in the road was actually a small snowball starting on a downward slope gaining speed. We continued our course and started confirming and verifying shipping addresses in April. By the end of May, we had only raised a little over $3,100. Even though we didn’t hit our goal we thought since we only had a little over 700 sign-ups we did a quick number crunch and figured we can make this work, not a problem. The sign proof arrived and due to the small size and flimsy quality we realized the 12 x 18 wouldn’t work. We called one of the companies that we had received a quote from to get a price on the bigger 18 x 24 signs. Since the 18 x 24 signs were only $0.42 more per sign and we were only ordering 1,000 signs not 2,500 signs; another number crunch and yes we can still make this work and made the order.
So imagine, it's now June 6th, 2015, and the time has finally come to launch. The signs have just arrived, and the pressure is intense at this point. We have Veterans and their families who have signed up and are on pins and needles waiting for their free sign. Like almost every other nonprofit, we have our haters and naysayers who are the people who are waiting and hoping to see us fail. And then of course the board members and volunteers who are watching and holding their breath praying that this program is successful. You have planned everything with great precision for the last nine months to ensure nothing major goes wrong. You have been prepping for the last 3 weeks ordering everything you will need including ordering 300 extra signs just in case. And since you are a perfectionist you have planned for anything you can possibly think of that could go wrong, plus you've already hit some small speedbumps that you’ve been able to control and effectively manage, you think you are sitting in a very good position. The only thing left is to ship these out, and the manpower is planned out: you have yourself, your spouse, and one board member driving 8 hours to come help for the next three days get 1,000 signs shipped out the door by June 12th to ensure timely delivery. Everything is ready to go, and you believe it is smooth sailing from this point.
Except there is one problem. When I sat down to order all of our flat shipping boxes from USPS, all the sudden alarms start blaring, and I can hear my own thoughts yelling at me, “Houston we have a problem” and boy did we ever have a problem.
I look over at the signs and realize, we priced everything with the 12 x 18 sign size, now we went a lot bigger, and the supplies we originally figured the cost of would not be big enough. So since we are a nonprofit I tried to find the cheapest way to do this. But, I’m not going to panic, this is just another speed bump. Finally, I came up with a solution to this problem. The solution was that we are going to go cardboard recycle bin diving to get enough cardboard to hand make 1,000 boxes to ship these signs. By this point the phrase, "recipe for disaster" should have been glaring in front of us, but it was not. It’s not until I lay out my solution, and I get that look of, “You have got to be kidding me!” that I realize the errors in my solution. Obviously I didn't realize exactly how much cardboard we would need to have both a top and bottom piece of cardboard measuring 20 x 26 and then two side pieces measuring 2 x 26 for 1,000 signs. Nor did I consider the amount of manpower it would require to individually make all of these pieces.
So here I am trying to stay calm and find a different solution. I get online, and I start looking at different shipping boxes. I realize very quickly and start crunching numbers that this is not going to be easy. We raised $3,100 and had already spent $2,100 on just the signs, and we still need $525 for postage to ship the signs at our nonprofit rate leaving us with around $400 to spend on materials, so these boxes are out of the question. We decide on these huge 24 x 24 poly shipping bags that are around .75 cents each and my husband, and I decided to make up any difference whatever the nonprofit is short. So I go on and order the poly shipping bags, and they are scheduled to arrive by June 8th, so I am thinking whew, crisis averted.
But it wasn’t, that was just the tip of the iceberg. When we figured the shipping, we priced the smaller 12 x 18 sign that could be shipped at our nonprofit rate which was around $0.75. The larger 18 x 24 sign was considered an oversize parcel therefore not eligible to be shipped at our nonprofit rate. Now we had to ship each sign First Class at $3.43 per sign. I frantically start doing the math in my head, and I am starting to panic. And that is when I am dealt the blow that causes me to eat the pavement.
First class shipping has different rules on size, thickness, and weight. Somehow we have to add a ½" to the height of package without adding any more than 2 oz. Bubble wrap is how we are going to have to achieve this new feat, I mean it is the only possible option. But we did not budget for the insane amount of bubble wrap and shipping tape we would need. So now I’m panicking, we are talking full freak-out mode here. The only thing I can see at this moment is the entire nonprofit crashing and burning before we ever even get the first sign packaged and shipped.
Now obviously we were able to pull off some miraculous play and not only got the initial 700 signs out, but we also ended up shipping a total of 2,700 out by July 4th and a waiting list of over 3,000 more veterans wanting a sign. If we look at the initial goal of educating people and getting them talking about PTSD then yes we were successful in that aspect.
But as a nonprofit we failed on so many levels. Remember how I told you when we did the initial budget we figured we would need around $10,000 to supply 2,500 signs? There are a few different factors that contributed to this becoming a fail of epic proportions.
- When we started, it took us almost two months to get a sign-up list started for those wanting a sign.
- Because it took two months to have a sign-up, we missed an opportunity to collect information from the majority of people who wanted to know how they could get a sign that potentially affected our ability to raise funds for this program.
- Initially, we priced the signs at the small yard sign size of 12 x 18 which is considerably smaller. It was because of the small size and difficulty fitting all the text onto the sign that we changed to the bigger sign.
- When we dropped the fundraising goal from $10,000 to $5,000, we did not adjust the amount of signs to be distributed from 2,500, which then eliminated the shipping cost previously factored in.
- Even though we thought we had every possible angle covered, we did not account for one very important factor. The possibility of human errors.
Looking at those factors, we can see where improvements need to be made and have learned a great deal.
- We always need a place where our members and supporters can sign up to get on our list for newsletters and other information.
- We need to be willing to hire a tech person. Learning how to do these things is important and saves on expenses, but because it took so long to set up a sign-up list, what did that cost us in the end?
- We need to explore a variety of options, “just in case.”
- Any time changes are made we need to rerun the cost to make sure nothing has been affected by the change.
- We need to remember that people make mistakes; we always need to give ourselves room for those errors.
- We learned that even when the deck is stacked against you, determination and teamwork can still affect the outcome in a positive way.
- We learned it is okay to get very creative when problem-solving because sometimes the only solution is so far outside of the box it seems almost impossible.
- We also learned that no matter how intense the pressure is we cannot let fear of failing or making mistakes rule us. We are human; we will make mistakes. That is how we learn and grow.
When we reflect on our choices and actions, we can see that yes, mistakes were made. It did not end us, so we look at what we can learn, where can we improve, and we laugh at ourselves. In the end, we spent much more on the cost of the program than we received monetarily, but learning how to evaluate ourselves and find areas to learn and grow is not something we can gain without the experience we went through. Which will better help us prepare and execute "Explosion of Kindness 2016"
We thank for your support because without you none of this would have been possible.
Shawn j. Gourley
Executive Director and Project Leader
And the Board of Directors of Military with PTSD.