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3 Nonprofit Founders Who Are Inspiring Entrepreneurs

Hygiene for the homeless. Flowers for the forgotten in hospitals. Crucial supplies for cops: Sounds a lot like entrepreneurship!
3 Nonprofit Founders Who Are Inspiring Entrepreneurs
Image credit: Random Acts of Flowers
Guest Writer
CEO of Integrity Marketing & Consulting
6 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Who's your business idol? In entrepreneurship circles, it’s natural to look up to figures like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and Richard Branson, three innovators who continually inspire people to dream bigger.

A relentless perfectionist, Jobs forever changed our relationship with computers, putting them literally in the palm of our hands. At PayPal, Musk changed the way we think about online payments. Now, he’s creating the future of automobiles and reigniting our nation’s passion for space exploration.

Related: How to Know When You Should Partner With a Nonprofit

And Branson, a self-made billionaire who dropped out of high school, has built an entire corporate empire by following his passion for “making business fun.” While there’s no denying these three leaders are certainly role models, others may receive less media attention but are inspiring nonetheless. In fact, you may be surprised to learn that some of the most inspiring aren’t in the corporate world at all: They’re leading successful nonprofits.

They're just like us.

Nonprofit leaders have a natural entrepreneurial mindset. They have to, because like startup founders, nonprofit leaders aim to solve a problem by providing goods or services.

In the process, they use creative problem-solving and marketing to raise public awareness and financial support for their vision, just the way entrepreneurs strive to secure financing and build public excitement for their product launches. Many nonprofit leaders also supervise a passionate, paid staff while recruiting and training a robust volunteer force. Moreover, these leaders must be creative, open-minded, flexible and nimble --  just like, you guessed it, entrepreneurs.

So, there's nothing wrong with looking up to entrepreneur giants like Jobs, Musk, and Branson. But you may be surprised just how much you can learn from these three nonprofit leaders:

Related: This Nonprofit Acts Like a Tech Startup. Why Don't More Nonprofits Do the Same?

Larsen Jay: CEO, Random Acts of Flowers

In July 2007, Larsen Jay was in a near-fatal accident and endured multiple surgeries. Throughout his challenging recovery process, Jay drew strength from the beautiful floral arrangements he received at the hospital. As he began to heal, he realized that many of his fellow patients hadn't been recipients of the kinds of bouquets which, for Jay, provided such important emotional lift and encouragement during his recovery.

There in the hospital, he began repurposing his flowers to share with fellow patients, and Random Acts of Flowers was born.

Today, the Knoxville, Tenn.-based nonprofit strives to improve the emotional health and well-being of individuals in healthcare facilities by delivering recycled flowers, encouragement and personal moments of kindness. Flowers are a positive emotion-inducer, improving mood and long-term episodic memory in elderly patients. A 2009 study by researchers at the University of Kansas found that patients with flowers or plants in their rooms had shorter hospital stays and reported pain, anxiety, and fatigue less frequently.

Entrepreneurship lesson: Opportunity is everywhere -- you just need to think outside the box. In founding Random Acts of Flowers, Jay turned “lemons into lemonade” by finding a creative way to repurpose floral arrangements, bringing joy and vital emotional support to patients when they need it most.

Aaron Negherbon: Founder, COPS Direct

When Aaron Negherbon learned how budget cuts, supply shortages and bureaucratic red tape were causing local police forces to go without critical equipment, he sprang into action. Negherbon had previously founded and run the grassroots effort TroopsDirect, which helps U.S. troops overseas get critical supplies. Drawing on the lessons he learned with TroopsDirect, Negherbon founded CopsDirect, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that supplies law enforcement agencies in the United States with any critically needed items or training that they cannot acquire through normal procurement practices.

Using a real-time support model, San Ramon, Calif.-based CopsDirect delivers requested medical, tactical, communication and K9 items to agencies within three to seven days. For urgent requests, the nonprofit offers accelerated, next-day delivery.

In addition to creating an innovative response-time model, Negherbon keeps a close eye on finances to maximize the impact for every dollar donated. Currently, more than 90 cents of every dollar donated goes toward program fulfillment, a ratio significantly above the national nonprofit average of 60 cents per dollar, according to the American Institute of Philanthropy.

Entrepreneurship lesson: Don’t settle for good: Always keep improving. Negherbon already had a successful nonprofit with TroopsDirect, but his passion for helping Americans who put their lives on the line for their country drove him to do even more. Drawing on the lessons learned from ToopsDirect, Negherbon was able to refine his logistical supply chain and provide law enforcement with much-needed supplies delivered quickly.

Doniece Sandoval: Founder and CEO, Lava Mae

A complex issue like homelessness can feel overwhelming: Can a single person really make a difference? That’s the challenge Doniece Sandoval decided to take on when she tackled a single but singular aspect of homelessness: how lack of access to hygiene hurts human dignity.

Sandoval founded Lava Mae in 2013 and began converting public transportation buses into showers and toilets on wheels to deliver hygiene and rekindle dignity for San Francisco’s homeless. To date, Lava Mae has served more than 4,000 individuals who have taken 20,000-plus showers in its mobile units. Today, Lava Mae is amplifying its impact, having created a replicable model for similar hygiene services in cities across the country.

Entrepreneurship lesson: Break big challenges down into smaller, more manageable issues. Rather than trying to solve every problem at once, focus on being exceptional at one thing, and then build from there.

Related: An 'Entrepreneur' by Any Other Name: 5 Things to Consider When You Start a Non-Profit

Final thoughts 

Larsen Jay, Aaron Negherbon and Doniece Sandoval may never appear on the same or lists as Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and Richard Branson, but they are true innovators nonetheless. They’ve all demonstrated passionate, open-minded, flexible and nimble thinking about the best way to solve problems outside traditional for-profit business models. And that is the true definition of "entrepreneurship."

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