Defying the Odds: Cause Studio Gives Nonprofit Professionals, Organizations Tools to Succeed

Since 2015, Cause Studio has offered an incubator for early-stage nonprofits. In its newest program, it plans to create a workforce pipeline for nonprofit professionals. "We’re trying to disrupt the way that people look at the nonprofit sector," says founder Kim O'Neil.

Cause Studio

When Robyn Brown first started organizing computer science workshops in the Dallas area, she wasn’t thinking the passion project would turn into a nonprofit.

Brown, who has a communications background in the software industry, began with bringing in professionals to teach a few one-off workshops to young students. Three years later, that work has blossomed into a full blown education nonprofit serving more than a hundred first through 10th-graders in Dallas and Collin counties.

“There was such a need, especially to build interest around girls and minority students, who wouldn’t otherwise see themselves pursuing computer science or engineering,” said Brown, who founded Bold Idea with software developer Ben Davis and Jennifer Beecham, who serves as a senior product manager at Irving-based Reata Pharmaceuticals.

Bold Idea’s story isn’t all that different than that of many organizations in the social sector. A few dedicated individuals see a need in the community and take action to create solutions.

Although their sense of purpose is clear, said North Texas nonprofit consultant Kim O’Neil, some fall short of having the business expertise to craft a lasting infrastructure. She’s seen it time and time again — fledging nonprofits going by the wayside.

“And, it’s not unique to North Texas. It’s a national issue,” said O’Neil, who also works as a college professor teaching nonprofit management. 

In 2016, the National Center for Charitable Statistics found that more than 83 percent of North Texas nonprofits had operating budgets under $100,000.

That means there are a large number of nonprofits in the area that don’t have the resources to be as effective as they could be in the community, O’Neil said.

O’Neil wanted to reverse that trend, which is what inspired her to start Cause Studio in 2015. In the organization’s three-year incubator program called Portfolio, early-stage nonprofits get one-on-one mentoring and training to build up their business acumen and ensure they have a foundation that can endure.

Cause Studio

Cause Studio Founder Kim O’Neil presents during a past North Texas Business Pitch Contest. [Photo: D Lacy Photos; courtesy of Cause Studio]

PUTTING STARTUP NONPROFITS ON PATH TO SUCCESS

It’s been a welcomed program for Bold Idea’s Brown, who said she’s received instruction on finances, writing internal processes, building a board of directors, among other areas she didn’t have much experience with.

“When you’re first starting a nonprofit organization, it can be really easy to focus all of your attention on the program or the service you are providing to the community because that’s why you got started and it’s fun,” Brown said. “However, especially what we learned from Kim, it’s often the un-fun work of building the administrative side of the organization that is just as critical, if not more, during those early stages.”

O’Neil admits her program is rigorous. Bold Idea will be the sole nonprofit who will graduate from cohort one this June.

“Our goal is to be this resource to these organizations and a guide to these organizations for three years …”
Kim O’Neil

“Our goal is to be this resource to these organizations and a guide to these organizations for three years, but scaling back the level of support so that we are empowering them to have some level of independence by the time they leave,” O’Neil said.

At 14, Monica Orozco is Cause Studio’s youngest Portfolio participant. She’s in the second year of the incubator with her organization, Gift of Reading. Monica started the initiative in second grade when she found out that not all kids had their own books. She told her mom she needed to help.

“She said the only way to change your community is to start small,” Monica said her mom told her.

Cause Studio

Cause Studio founder Kim O’Neil (right) coached Monica Orozco in her $15,000 win at the MegaFutures pitch competition last year. [Photo: Rache Photography; courtesy of Cause Studio]

Since that time, Monica’s given out more than 15,000 books to thousands of Irving ISD students. She’s also come to know what entrepreneurship and sustainability mean.

Through Cause Studio, O’Neil helped Monica set up Gift of Reading as a fiscally sponsored initiative of FJC rather than becoming a standalone nonprofit at this early stage. FJC, is a New York foundation of philanthropic funds, which also is a fiscal sponsor of Cause Studio.

“I think the only person in the professional workspace that really did take me seriously after listening to my story was Ms. Kim,” Monica said.

“She said the only way to change your community is to start small.”
Monica Orozco

Currently, O’Neil is helping Monica reshape the structure of Gift of Reading so it can have a larger impact.

“She shifted from this young lady with this idea whose family supported her to this young, entrepreneurial-minded person that says ‘in order for me to make this grow, what pieces do I need in place and what pieces am I missing?’” O’Neil said of Monica.

Cause Studio has touched more than 1,000 nonprofit professionals, most through the trainings it puts on for the general public sometimes with partners such as the Dallas Public Library or University of Texas at Dallas.

Cause Studio

The University of Texas at Dallas provides a team of graduate students from its business school each semester that work as consultants with Cause Studio. [Photo: Rache Photography; courtesy of Cause Studio]

CHANGING THE PERCEPTION OF THE NONPROFIT SECTOR

Through its newest program, Commission, O’Neil wants to disrupt the nonprofit sector even further.

“If we continue training people and serving our organizations in the way that we always have, we’re going to continue to get the same thing we always got and right now that’s failing nonprofit organizations,” she said.

Commission will be a fellowship giving graduate students and recent college grad students, especially from low to moderate income families, work experience in the social sector. It will also continue Cause Studio’s mission of helping nonprofits continue to grow.

“After they finish the program, our goal is to help position them and help them identify employment opportunities within the nonprofit sector right here in North Texas.”

Kim O’Neil

“What we aim to do is not only help these nonprofit organizations with their administrative capacity, we also aim to be mentors and sponsors to the future North Texas nonprofit professionals,” Bridget Landis, Cause Studio’s program coordinator, said.

Cause Studio plans to take three people in its pilot cohort this fall. By 2022, O’Neil envisions to have at least 100 fellows go through Commission.

“After they finish the program, our goal is to help position them and help them identify employment opportunities within the nonprofit sector right here in North Texas,” O’Neil said.

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