Courtney Spence on How Non-Profit Shifts From Survival to Growth Mode

In Chapter 3 of 16 in her 2011 Capture Your Flag interview, non-profit founder and executive Courtney Spence answers "What is Enabling Your Ambition to Shift Away from How to Survive to How to Thrive?" After seven years in operation, Spence finds her organization hitting an inflection point from a small budget and staffed organization operating in a recession to a future-focused organization ready to scale. She finds conversations shift from verbal support to actionable requests to help. Spence is founder and executive director of Students of the World, a non-profit that partners with passionate college students to create new media to highlight global issues and the organizations working to address them. Spence graduated with a BA in History from Duke University.


Erik Michielsen:  What is enabling your ambition to shift away from ‘how to survive’ to ‘how to thrive’?

Courtney Spence:  It’s interesting.  So we’ve been doing this for 11 years.  This is our eleventh year.  That’s—now we’ve been doing it as a national 501c3 nonprofit for seven, almost eight now.  I’ll start at, you know, at that eight year mark because that’s really when I was envisioning, you know, a national organization, a national nonprofit, you know, especially being as young as I was, you know, you set these insane benchmarks and so this concept of where would we be in 2011.  In my mind, when I was 23, looked very different than where we are now, but what has happened and what’s something I’m really appreciative of is that we’ve really done the hard work, and we’ve really, you know, what we’ve done with such a limited budget, with such a limited number of staff, through one of the most difficult financial, you know, crisis and times in our life, and, you know, in the history of this country, like I have to say I’m really proud of our team and of our students and of our organization for having been able to last through that, and its really been in the last six months that – what happened was I know there had to have been a change internally where all of a sudden I had more confidence, and I think coming off of this summer that was so incredible, coming off, you know, being able to be in New Orleans for the fifth anniversary of Katrina and seeing our partners there, you know, the inspiration that I took from the summer, I think probably changed something internally. 

Externally, what I noticed is conversations went from ‘oh you’re fighting a good fight, keep up the good work’, “aren’t you doing so great’ to ‘I wanna help, I’m taking out my Blackberry, I wanna connect with this person, and this person, and then let’s meet in two weeks and see where you are.’  So there was just this shift and that shift has happened in so many various relationships that we have at Students of the World that you just feel this momentum and this movement that’s happening.  And, you know, as the space that we live in, which is, you know, empowering young people to tell stories of progress through cause-related media, you know, young people have been interested in traveling the world and have increasingly had the capacity, and the skills, and the knowledge, and the equipment to do this work.  And finally, I think this -- the concept of nonprofit storytelling really is coming into its own.  You know, so all of these things kind of, you know, come together, and what you realize is that, you know, you actually have an ability to see not just where are we in three months, but where do we wanna be in three years, where do we wanna be in ten years, what is the real big difference we’re here to make, what’s our BHAG, what’s our big hairy audacious goal, what is our purpose. 

When you’re just trying to survive and you’re just trying to pay the rent, and pay your employees, and get the work done, and you’re focused like this, you’re not able to think and not able to see long term, and you have – there are moments where you have to be like that, but its been very exciting to watch sort of our horizons go from here to sort of like this, and like I’m able to now see possibilities where before it was – they weren’t necessarily there or I wasn’t seeing them.  So it’s a combination of a lot of things but this point where you’re, you know, between surviving and thriving, it’s a very exciting but it’s also a very scary place to be.