January 12, 2023
TEN YEARS! I started formulating the idea for Elevate in late 2012, after grant writing for and consulting with nonprofits on my own for a few years. And I officially filed the paperwork in December 2012 so that I could launch the company on January 1, 2013.
First, I am very proud of what we have accomplished. About 20% of private sector businesses in the United States fail within the first year; 50% after five years; and 65% after ten years, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. In contrast, ten years in, Elevate continues to grow and invest in services and our staff. We have exciting plans for the years ahead!
Moreover, per the National Women’s Business Council, we’re in the top 1% of women-owned businesses in the United States in both revenues and staff size – although, to be honest, this may say more about the state of gender equality in our country and business than anything else.
In fact, there is one experience that I remember very clearly from my early days building Elevate: I was in a cohort of other business executives that were working on scaling their companies. There was a panel of three CEOs who were talking about failure, and the role it has in taking risks and experimenting. One man proudly shared that he had started four companies and all of them had failed before his current venture. I remember turning to my colleague (in mild horror!) and saying, “I don’t want to start four companies and watch them fail: I want to start ONE company and make sure it succeeds.”
I know that his intent was to normalize failure; and we all have projects or ideas that do not work out – I certainly have. But from Day 1 of Elevate, I viscerally understood that YOU – our clients – were placing your trust in us: to develop high-quality proposals; to submit them on time and accurately; and to literally raise their budgets and staff salaries. I was in my twenties when I started Elevate, but I knew that this was a profound responsibility and I never took it lightly. I still do not.
In building Elevate, I have worked to ensure we offer high-quality services that meet our clients needs and that we have hired excellent staff to deliver those services. Over the years, we have developed strong training programs (which is still ongoing)! We invested in a management layer that supports staff one-on-one and a Client Services department that moves quickly when clients have concerns. We have reduced workloads so that all staff have more time to focus on each client. We also continue to invest in a high-quality operations team to support staff and clients day-to-day. And most importantly: I have made sure we have a competent and professional executive team of leaders with exceptional judgment.
I bring all of this up because the news is heavy with stories of atrocious corporate governance and irresponsible business leaders: from the collapse of FTX and its grotesque lack of internal accountability; to the decades-long criminal tax fraud of the Trump Organization; to former Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes being sentenced to 11 years in prison.
Leaders matter. The decisions we make for our organizations matter. And I have always looked to the nonprofit sector – rather than the corporate sector – for inspiration and guidance about how I wanted to lead Elevate. On this point, I’ll share one final story from Elevate’s founding.
Early on, a colleague and I were meeting with a potential client and explaining our three-person team model. (Yes, we do think it is distinctive and an important part of our value proposition to clients!) However, this person innocently said, “Oh, how innovative…!”
My eyes got wide and I was about to begin my multi-part thesis on why innovation is overvalued and effectiveness is much more important – when, thankfully, my colleague just said, “Don’t get her started…”
But it is true that after a decade of seeing funders prioritize the new and the shiny over the tried and true, I had developed a strong opinion on the matter. My staff who have worked with me long enough know that my favorite poem is To be of use by Marge Piercy (and my not-so-secret goal is for Elevate’s mascot to be the water buffalo).
That is because this poem encapsulates all that I love most about working with and for you – the nonprofit organizations that make people’s lives and communities better. It beautifully reflects how good people, doing hard work, day in and day out is what matters most. It is why I am so proud to have dedicated the last decade to serving you and your organizations. And it is why I am committed to ensuring that Elevate only improves in serving you over the next decade.
To be of use
BY MARGE PIERCY
The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.