In 2017, after over two years of spending nights, weekends, and even lunch breaks on my side gig, I finally went full time.
In late 2014, I sat down with my husband and a graphic designer friend to talk about a topic near and dear to my heart. I’d been working at a nonprofit organization for the past two years as a designer and marketer, and I had seen the struggle in the humanitarian sector of finding the time, talent, and money to resource projects that involved technology and design.
It was nearly impossible, but when we did find it, it made an immediate impact. This was a gap that needed to be bridged.
This was how Make a Mark was born. Make a Mark is a 12-hour design and development marathon benefiting local nonprofit organizations. Back in 2014, I never would have imagined that we’d now be in eight cities across the globe: New York City, San Francisco, Baltimore, Chattanooga, Charlotte, Asheville, Roanoke – Blacksburg, and Brussels.
Spreading these events to other communities is always something that I wanted to do. I wanted to share this opportunity for collaboration and community with other passionate people.
But I had to ask myself an important question: How do I scale while still maintaining quality?
Act with purpose
Make a Mark has always pushed to support talented people leading life-changing causes with the innovation and creativity they need to thrive. The reason we’ve been able to do this so well is because we’re driven entirely by purpose, not by numbers.
If something doesn’t align with our purpose, we don’t pursue it. This doesn’t mean we don’t drive after opportunities that will increase our reach or help us with funding, because of course we do—but we do this with partners and communities that we believe in and that believe in what we do.
“Your side gig won’t work if there’s a lack of long-term vision driving action.”
We also make sure that we act with a vision. I’ve seen plenty of side gigs and ideas fizzle out after one attempt because there’s a lack of long-term vision driving action. Your purpose and vision should drive your actions, and without this higher-level insight, it can be hard to know which choices to make to move your work forward.
To consider: Can you express your purpose in the next 30 seconds? If not, it may not be top of mind, and therefore may not be driving your behavior. Spend some time thinking about how your purpose connects with your daily words and actions.
Prove a concept
Don’t expect anyone to support your work if you don’t have anything to show. A brilliant idea is great, but execution is what matters.
In 2015, we held the very first make-a-thon in Virginia serving 12 nonprofits in the community with close to 40 makers. We continued to do this event for two more years, iterating and tweaking, until we were ready to scale up to other communities.
“You have to be willing to take out the trash.”
This isn’t easy; you have to be willing to do the work—and I’m talking all of the work. You have to be willing to take out the trash, as well as do interviews; wake up at 4am to email potential partners, as well as accept accolades.
We had to prove that this was an idea that could, would, and did work. We had stories, data, and followers to support our concept. We had our sponsors and partners coming to us with confidence and eagerness to support something that they had seen work well.
To consider: What are you waiting for? Funding? Time? Partners? These will come, but you have to prove your concept first. Stop waiting and start doing.
Listen to your audience
I’ll never forget a story that another nonprofit director, Jennie, told me several years ago. Jennie was running a weekend backpack program for low-income students. When the organization would package food, the staff would always include canned vegetables and would choose from peas, carrots, corn, etc. based on what that specific child enjoyed.
After a while, to save time and confusion, the staff decided to just give each child a can of mixed vegetables instead. After a few weekends, the director heard from the parents that none of the children wanted to eat their vegetables anymore.
“Are you turning feedback into action?”
Jennie took this feedback to heart and went back to their old system of giving the children what they looked forward to each weekend in their bags. This bit of feedback was small, but the organization’s reaction is the exact reason why it has been able to grow so steadily and see so much support from the community.
We learned at our first make-a-thon that the makers and nonprofits savor the community that’s built as part of Make a Mark. We only learned this because we listened to their feedback, both formally through surveys and informally through conversations. We knew that we needed to curate more opportunities for community so we introduced a kick-off event several weeks prior to the make-a-thon, as well as an after party immediately following demos in the evening.
To consider: Are you listening to feedback from your audience? Are you taking their feedback and turning it into action? Listening to feedback from your audience is a great start, but don’t forget to do something with it.
If you’re anything like me, you like a good challenge. The only way to grow is by making yourself (at least a little bit) uncomfortable.
Projects, and events especially, can get stale if you only stick with what you’ve done in the past. When it comes to the make-a-thons themselves, we sit down at least six months prior and ask ourselves, “What would this event look like if money were irrelevant?” This is when we develop some fun elements like a yoga break, augmented reality swag, and nonprofit training sessions.
This also helps us envision better results, starting with more intentional applications, nonprofit interviews, and an improved process for creating teams.
“How can you stretch yourself to take your side gig to the next level?”
Beyond the make-a-thon, we’ve been able to focus on our vision and purpose and start to incorporate year-round workshops for nonprofits, content in the form of our blog, and (of course) more locations across the world.
Challenging yourself and continually improving isn’t just about adjusting based on the negative feedback you receive. It’s about dropping what isn’t working, trying new ideas, and asking yourself how you can create a better experience for your audience.
To consider: How can you stretch yourself to take your side gig to the next level? Are there ideas that intimidate you, but have major potential? If so, try them.
Know your limitations
These could be your own personal limitations (like your skills or time), or limitations within your product, service, or event.
The 12-hour make-a-thon comes with its own time limitations that we’ve learned to navigate throughout the past three years by providing more detailed briefs to the makers, improving the quality of our planning meetings, and ultimately scoping and scaling the projects for 12 hours. Don’t be afraid to cut elements that just won’t work with your existing limitations.
I also had to develop a deep understanding of my own limitations. Knowing that I couldn’t lead each make-a-thon, I saw an opportunity to let others take on the role of site leaders. There’s power and value in allowing each community to define its own needs, and if I were to be the site leader for every event, each event would lack the unique qualities that make its area special.
In order to have the time to dedicate my mind share and my time to leading, mentoring, and supporting more locations—the things that drive the growth of my organization—I had to set limitations for myself. Even though I sometimes want to, I have to keep myself from stepping in to help plan individual locations’ events. By doing this, we reach even more nonprofits in communities across the globe.
To consider: Are you spending time and effort on activities that are keeping you from growing your side gig? If so, can you offload them or drop them entirely?
Develop an infrastructure
Before we could start chapters in other locations, we knew that we had to take the process that we had developed for ourselves and build it into an infrastructure that others could utilize.
We started this on a smaller scale at first, by bringing on locations with people that we had already worked with, and developing some shared resources.
“What foundation do you need to create to be able to bring your side gig to scale?”
As individuals in new locations started showing interest, we started building out more tools. Our biggest resource is our time. We have monthly video calls with each site leader, as well as additional emails and calls as needed. We also provide a robust field guide and resource kit including sample communication, budget concepts, templates, and more.
Finally, but most importantly, we facilitate a community with a shared forum for all site leaders to communicate and collaborate.
To consider: What foundation do you need to create to be able to bring your side gig to scale? How can you take the knowledge that currently exists only in your mind and build documentation around it?
Find the right people
This one isn’t new. People make an organization, and I’ve learned over the years that skill alone is no replacement for passion.
Make a Mark chapters are run and coordinated by dedicated and passionate volunteers in their communities that believe in the power of design, creativity, and technology for the nonprofit sector. We work directly with site leaders across the globe as they bring the 12-hour make-a-thon to their communities.
“Skill alone is no replacement for passion.”
We don’t require any certain career or educational background. We’re simply looking for passionate individuals who are committed to their communities and see the value in design and technology for nonprofits.
To consider: Look for purpose fit, because culture fit alone can lead to homogenous teams. Know when to ask someone to take a step back or leave.
Allow freedom and creativity
Once you have the right people, it’s important to trust them, support them, and let them explore their own ideas.
We know that our events and initiatives work for the areas that we already serve, but these same techniques might not work as well in a new area. Communication differs, organizations differ, and experiences differ. By allowing those who represent us to be flexible, we’re able to learn more about the unique qualities that make up some of the most creative cities in the world, and share this new insight with others. Don’t be a gatekeeper of knowledge.
To consider: In what ways are you creating an environment that allows creativity and freedom? Do people have to do things your way, or do they have room to inject their own ideas? Are you supporting people in a way that they feel confident to make mistakes?
“Once you have the right people, it’s important to trust them, support them, and let them explore their own ideas.”
Engage in meaningful relationships
The hardest part can sometimes be figuring out which relationships are healthy and meaningful. These relationships are the ones that support us and lift us up, they also challenge us to perform better.
We view the community’s support of our efforts as an essential part of Make a Mark — whether it’s a local community or a larger-scale design community that spans countries. These people and organizations may help fund us, recruit supporters, share our story, or simply be a sounding board. This backing doesn’t just drive our events, it reinforces the importance of supporting the nonprofits that we work with and the makers that serve them.
Connecting with the right people is critical, but cutting out those who are toxic to grow is just as important. Your time is valuable—don’t waste it on those with competing values.
To consider: What relationships are toxic that you need to eliminate? Which ones need to be nurtured?
“Don’t waste time on toxic people.”
Trust your intuition
You’re going to get plenty of advice (including this article). Some of it will be welcomed and some of it will be unsolicited; some of it will be earth-shattering and some of it will be abysmal, but regardless, none of it is law.
When my husband speaks to students, he always urges them to take his story and glean from it what’s valuable to them, but not to take any of it as a hard and fast rule. I’ve always admired his insight on this subject, and I couldn’t agree more.
To consider: No one knows more about the specific work you are doing than you. That’s why it’s so important to trust yourself, believe in yourself, and follow your gut. When scaling Make a Mark, I’ve tried to make all of my decisions with the knowledge that I have (supported heavily with my own intuition), and I’ve rarely been disappointed.
Find out how to bring Make a Mark to your city.
Sarah Obenauer is the Founder & Director of Make a Mark, an organization created to provide resources and foster an environment where community organizations and visual communicators can engage with one another to better our world.Make a Mark’s flagship event is a 12-hour design and development marathon benefiting humanitarian causes.