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Back to Roots: How to Launch & Grow a Nonprofit

Getting your nonprofit off the ground can be really difficult. That’s why our Accidental Fundraiser Ayanna Nahmias went back to her home in Zimbabwe to, well, put her nonprofit in the ground. Literally.

Despite a troubling childhood, Nahmias started and runs the Zimbabwe Farm Project, soon to be Africa Vertical, a sustainable farming complex in Zimbabwe that employs women from the local community to tend organic crops. She’s overcome countless obstacles and benefited from some fortunate opportunities. Today, they’re expanding their mission beyond Zimbabwe and farming!

Learn in this episode of Accidental Fundraiser how Ayanna got her start “uplifting a nation” and how she’s literally and figuratively grown her grassroots nonprofit. Need a reminder why you do what you do? Ayanna’s story will re-inspire you.

In This Episode You’ll Learn:

  • Remaining true to your mission, values and “why” is consistent across most, if not all, successful nonprofits and organizations.
  • Your donors want to see where their money goes. Illustration and storytelling are paramount to a high-functioning fundraising campaign.
  • As your nonprofit or organization grows, you story evolves. Once you remove yourself from the picture, your donors will support the project, the mission and the cause.

Season 2 Episode 4 Transcript

Ayanna Nahmias: [00:00:00] If you believe in the mission, you’re going to have to invest a lot of time and money. I don’t know that people realize that you have to stay strong because believe me, I had a lot of naysayers, even family. Why are you doing this? You can’t pay your own bills. Why are you sending money over there and blah, blah, blah.

And just a lot of negativity. So you have to be. And yourself and know that you’re supposed to be doing this.

Kimberly: sometimes in fundraising, you have to step outside of your comfort zone, dive in and learn something new. I’m Kimberly O’Donnell. And this is accidental fundraiser show from network for good. That shares radically authentic stories from the trenches, getting your nonprofit off the. Can be really difficult.

That’s why our accidental fundraiser Ayanna Nyeema’s went back to her home in Zimbabwe to, [00:01:00] well, the put her non-profit in the ground. Literally, despite a troubling childhood and the Haemus started and runs the Zimbabwe farm project soon to be known as Africa vertical, a sustainable farming complex in Zimbabwe, then employees, women from the local community to tend to organic crops.

She’s overcome countless obstacles and benefited from some really fortunate opportunities today. They’re expanding their mission beyond some bottles. And farming learn in this episode of accidental fundraiser, how Ayanna got her start uplifting a nation and how she’s literally and figuratively grown her grassroots, nonprofit need a reminder of why you do what you do.

Ayanna story will re inspire you. Deanna, could you share a little bit about the Zimbabwe farm project for women in power?

Ayanna Nahmias: Thank you for having me on the show. Kimberly, the project came about actually, it was [00:02:00] initially cathartic. My father had lived in Zimbabwe for 40 years. He was a dual citizen, us and Zimbabwe, and I had grown up in Africa.

Nigeria and Tanzania American by birth. And when he passed, I had never been to Zimbabwe. We had to go to sort out his affairs. And so I went with my sister and it was the first time that I got to see Zimbabwe. And I got to see the farm where he had lived for all of those years. That was 2015. So he passed and late 2015, we decided to move the land to.

With the understanding that I would be the one that would be doing something with the land, but I had no idea what I was going to do at that time concurrently. I am an it project manager. I’ve been doing that for 20 years now. So that kind of gave me the skills. Needed to make this project happen. So it wasn’t like it [00:03:00] was out of the blue.

The accidental part did happen, but in terms of the skills necessary, I had that strong project management foundation and I also used my financial resources from my income to get this thing up off the ground. I have a magazine, an online magazine. I have an AMEA cipher report and that. Form this, because I started that publication in 2009 to provide a voice for women and children in countries with emerging economies who may or may not have a, had similar experiences to me.

So though I was American by birth, my dad expatriated, we were raised Muslim and we had a lot of challenges. I was recently interviewed with my mom. And one of the funny stories we like to tell is that my dad tried to sell me for 12 cows. And that kind of experience just gave me a real passion and a heart [00:04:00] for women that may not have opportunities because they grew up in these types of societies.

I say all this to say, It didn’t happen in a vacuum in 2016, I had everything on the property demolished and just turned it into a big farm. And what we, the first year, I want it people in the community to work as a rural agrarian community, which is outside of Harare. And there were many people living in the woods there.

And it was really sad. I just, I had never seen that. I had seen poverty living in Nigeria, of course, and living, I had seen poverty, but I had never seen people who lived in the woods, but who work every day. And so I was like, I want to provide. A place for them to be able to work and to utilize the land.

And that was the initiation of the project. But if it didn’t become a non-profit and the women’s empowerment [00:05:00] until I really focused in on if. Empower a woman and you provide her the means to financial independence. She can feed her family. And as my farm manager says, uplift the nation. And that’s really when that started to coalesce and take home.

When I started, I just wanted to honor my dad, which is how the Zimbabwe farm project name came about. As we’ve grown and matured. I realized that name does not encompass the vision and where it’s going, because it’s not going to be limited to Simba way. It’s awesome. Not limited to farming. I want to do hydroponics because I want to train women to move away from the model.

You get a little plot of land and we do some micro financing and then you grow your land and your food and you take it to the market [00:06:00] because believe me, we’ve done so many success of harvest. You don’t make enough money to do anything. They sell that produce or they eat the produce, but farming is a hard business.

It’s just a very hard business unless you’re doing. At large scale. My vision has been to provide these women with skills that will take them into the century that we’re moving into. So it is about the land, but less about that and more about those skills. It’s helping women to be able to scale, to achieve vertical independence.

And you don’t just have to be a farmer. If you want to be a farmer. That’s. But you don’t just have to be a farmer.

Kimberly: Wow. What an incredible story. How challenging is it to run a nonprofit from the U S that’s based in. [00:07:00]

Ayanna Nahmias: It was challenging in the beginning because I didn’t know a lot about the structure of the country.

And I had to rely and put a lot of trust in people. I have lawyers, I have accountants and banks. It’s not like there’s no structure there. Actually, when I first started, my lawyer is also a. Citizen USA and Zimbabwe, but in those formative years, I would say we’re still in massive organization. But in those initial years I had like experience with people, like ripping me off, get, like I said, this was self-funded still is self-funded or funded from the proceeds of the farm, but I sent money over there and somebody.

Took the whole thousand dollars. I trusted this person because for a year they were fine and then something happened. But I have to say that those were minimal two times that [00:08:00] happened to me. So I’ve been very fortunate in finding the right people. Also, I have to give credit to December. Having traveled in different countries in Africa.

I have never met anyone likes above lands. They have a high level of integrity and a high work ethic. And I don’t think I could have done this in any other country because. You have to rely on people so much to do what they say. They’re going to do my farm manager and his wife. She’s the poultry manager.

They’re the ones that hire the women from the beginning. We were just hiring anyone in the community. Now we only hire women that are in the community. He’s responsible for hiring them, paying them, directing them. And these women are so grateful. They show. And they work really hard for not a lot of money as an American.

One [00:09:00] of the things I can say is when I first went there, they were demolishing properties on the farm. I was paying them what I thought you should pay people in America. And eventually somebody pulled me aside and they said, Ayanna, you’re destabilizing the local economy. You can’t really do that. And so though my heart had a desire to do that.

I did a. Accordingly, but still now these are women who are no longer living in the woods. They’re able to buy food and determine, and chart out their own destinies because they’re being paid in us dollars versus the local current. It’s amazing how

Kimberly: in the last seven years or so you’ve become a farming expert as well.

Yeah. Anything that you ever thought that you would be doing in your life is, is becoming a farming expert? No,

Ayanna Nahmias: I never did. I have an English lit degree. I thought I would be [00:10:00] like. All writer. I met my Angela. She was one of my idols and I was like, I’m going to be like my Angela now, but I never thought I would be a farmer.

And I never thought I would be this passionate about it. It’s amazing. The smells, the process of just love farming. I don’t know. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s like knowing where your food comes from. Because here in America, unless you live in a farming community, we don’t know really where our food comes from.

I support local grocers, like my organic market here in this area and the local groceries that they support. I like that because I know what they. Through to do that, especially if you’re doing permaculture or sustainable agriculture or organic farming, that’s a hard road when you’re competing against people that are spraying pesticides.

It takes a lot like the women have to work every day. They have to weed the field. It’s just [00:11:00] awesome. And to see the finished product, to see the potatoes and the carrots and onions. I can see

Kimberly: the passion, the joy, the satisfaction, just coming out of your smile and just oozing from you. We can all feel it.

Can you share a little bit about how you moved towards this becoming a women’s empowerment initiative? What was behind?

Ayanna Nahmias: It was a particular incident. So I’ll tell you what happened at the grocery store. Basically our routine, when we go there is we’re there to buy supplies, buy everything needed for the farm.

Usually for the next harvest season, I was at the grocery store. Put my phone down and left gets almost to the farm. And I discovered that I didn’t have my phone manager said no, but we’ll look for it. We rushed back. I’m so stressed and we get back and the manager says, we looked for your phone. We couldn’t find.[00:12:00]

But don’t worry and look on the video footage. And they see that there was a woman behind me who picked up my phone. The manager says, oh, I know who she is. She sells vegetables down on the main road. He called me that evening and he said, we found her and we know where she lives. She’s agreed to give you your phone back.

If you pick her up. Because the police were involved, the police were like, no, she has to go and get charged first. So the policeman, the store manager, myself, my son and my partner drove to pick her up, to take her to the police station. When we got there, she had a little baby, she was still breastfeeding.

So we picked her up. We took her to the. Police station. And they insisted that we charge her. Then I went home that night and I started thinking about it and I was like, wow, here I am talking about [00:13:00] women and children. And I’m prosecuting a woman over an iPhone who has a baby. And I was so mortified. How did I get so out of line, how did my.

Moral values get so out of line, over a phone versus someone’s life. I ran back to the station the next morning. And when I got there, she was laying on the floor with her baby and people were just stepping over her. I asked them to dismiss the charges and the way they work there, they said, no, it doesn’t work like that.

You have to go. And the magistrate has to dismiss them. Once again, we did this whole thing where we did caravan, took her to the court. She was on defendant side and I was on the victim side. And all of a sudden you hear her baby crying in the lobby. They let her go out and breastfeed her baby. The magistrate speaking to her, he was very angry with her.

And then I stood up and I was like, I want them [00:14:00] dismissed. He was insisted that I prosecute her, but I refused. And they let her go. And that was really what made me realize I have to honor my core values. Women’s empowerment, women and children. I saved her, but I saved myself.

Kimberly: Incredible now your organization is focused on women empowerment.

You are going through rebranding because you want your organization to move beyond farming and Zimbabwe, and really further throughout Africa share with us a little bit about. How your fundraising today, you mentioned that you started out where you were, self-supporting all of the activities at the farm.

How have you, as an accidental fundraiser, begun to raise the money for

Ayanna Nahmias: your organization? I did get support from friends, but [00:15:00] the biggest donation that I got was from an uncle because. Well, ran dry. Our borehole run dry. There’s been a drought in Southern Africa for awhile, so we have to dig another borehole.

And that was like $10,000. Without it, our crops were going to die. And as it was, we did lose a significant portion of that season when he gave me that I just was crying. I couldn’t believe it. And then after that, I went back to self-supporting, but I found faith. Which is how I heard about network for good.

I went through the process and I got approved to accept donations through Facebook. I found that to be really difficult. I haven’t found the right. Peel or something like we have a lot of followers. We have people that do fundraising campaigns. Like we ask all of our followers, Hey, how do you want to [00:16:00] help?

If you don’t want to donate, can you create a fundraiser? I would say the other challenge with our particular project is Zimbabwe. People have a conception of Zimbabwe that’s based on news. That’s not really how it is, especially since Mugabi is no longer president people still have that kind of carry over view.

Now I have found that the more videos I post and the more pictures I post people were like, wow. That’s a really cool place. We’ve had some people come and visit. We had another nonprofit come and visit the farm called print, the love, and they came and visited the farm. We have an upcoming trip with a nonprofit here and her vision and mission is to explore the nexus between mental health.

And food and fresh food in underserved communities here in the metropolitan DC area. So she’s going to [00:17:00] be bringing a group of people over when I go back early summer. So things like that I’ve been able to do more successfully. I’ve accidentally fell into this, but I don’t have that fundraising. Piece and place in terms of somebody who knows how they do that.

And that’s what they do. 24 7. I know how to do farming. I know how to do it and project management, but the fundraising piece is still a mystery.

Kimberly: And with the fundraising piece, what I found in working with others as a coach is that. There are three things that really help get small organizations off the ground.

One is being able to make that ask right, understanding that you’re not asking for money. You are inviting individuals to support. The cause the missionary and then they give money. They’re giving through you to the cause. When you think of [00:18:00] it that way, then it’s a little less scary. The other thing is having contact list.

If you don’t have people to talk to, then you don’t have anybody to ask. It sounds like you have a great base because you have your, your newsletter base of 300,000 that you can begin and continue to nurture. You have your Facebook audience. One courage to list three is time having that time every single week to proactively fundraise and try new things.

And it sounds like you’re trying a lot of different things to see what works. Some of those things could work down the road. You’re just beginning to build that base. You have individuals who are doing Facebook fundraisers for you. And the question then is how do you follow up with them? How do you share their story through your page?

Well, you could also take examples of that and share that with your group where you have your newsletter. And another thing that really helps is you have amazing pictures. I have seen your Facebook page. I have seen your website, your gallery. Oh my [00:19:00] gosh. The beautiful landscape, the food, the fresh vegetables, the faces, the smiling faces, the women, the children.

It’s incredible. And that can be really appealing. If you begin to tell the stories behind each of those people, Netflix. And HBO and ABC what they all do with the shows, the sitcoms that we watch. How do you build out characters for your organization for Africa? Vertical is it’s now called how do you begin to tell the stories of each of those people who are part of Africa vertical?

Ayanna Nahmias: I redid the website. And as you said, started doing more photos, more stories. And when we started doing these stories of the women out of the blue, somebody donated $1,500 to build a cabin for them to train it. And I was, I didn’t know this person, I thank them profusely [00:20:00] and sent them pictures of the people.

But I found that there’s a videographer and a photographer. That I work with and I promised him that I would mention his name, his company’s I lax, and his name is Tinder. And he goes out to the farm now and they speak to the women in Shona and the women are allowed to tell their stories. First. I was like, oh, we’ll do a script.

And they were like, no, just let the women. Yeah. Tell their story then getting professional photos. That’s what really started to make the difference because before it was always, I found my iPhone, a farm manager’s iPhone, which is good because I always believe that people want to see where their money goes.

Especially it’s far way. When we started doing the professional photos and professional videos. That’s when I felt a change. I noticed that immediately when I started having [00:21:00] the women tell their stories versus me telling their story. After a certain number of years, projects have to grow and mature and separate.

And that’s what I’ve been in the process of doing also by bringing more people on board is separating myself from the project like a baby. It has to start walking on its own. It’s not an extension of me, I’m the founder, but it’s not the extension of. And I feel that because that’s happening and people are seeing that it’s happening, they don’t feel like they’re supporting me, but they’re supporting the project, the mission and the women.


Kimberly: is a great way to describe the evolution of a nonprofit. It’s like a baby. And you have to separate yourself from the baby and let it grow and thrive. Was there a distinct moment where that hit you or did it just start happening?

Ayanna Nahmias: It hit me. [00:22:00] I thought a couple of nasty things on Facebook. We were like, eh, we’re not going to give you money.

It was just really nasty. And I was like, whoa, where is that coming from? So that’s when it kinda hit me that I need to really pull back and I need to have other voices, not just the women, but other voices that people can see the other people involved and let them and their voices speak, especially. So my team is primarily Zimbabwe.

Let those Zimbabwean people speak because they’re there all the time. It’s never been about me and my heart. It’s never been about me, but it’s about perception.

Kimberly: As you are thinking about other individuals, accidental fundraisers, accidental CEOs, what we call the chief, everything officer for a nonprofit.

What advice would you give them as they’re starting to.

Ayanna Nahmias: As I said it was a [00:23:00] started project. It was a family mission, but I think I would have rather gotten my paperwork together and become certified as a 5 0 1 C3 and done all of that in the beginning versus like halfway through and. If you believe in the mission, you’re going to have to invest a lot of time and money.

I don’t know that people realize that you have to stay strong because believe me, I had a lot of naysayers, even family. Why are you doing this? You can’t pay your own bills. Why are you sending money over there and blah, blah, blah. And just a lot of negativity. So you have to be strong in yourself and know that you’re supposed to be doing this.

Like Noah’s Ark. He’s like he built it and he just knew he was supposed to. I know that I’m supposed to do this. I know that. I know that I know. And nobody can tell me otherwise there has [00:24:00] to be that level of tenacity and day-to-day oversight. Nobody. Make your vision come true the way that you do. So I work full-time and then I work full time.

So I have my day job, and then I do this at night. You have to be focused on something bigger than yourself. And I don’t know. I think most people in the us non-profits are like churches. They think of churches. And then internationally people think of charity and aid organizations, but it’s not for self aggrandizement.

So if that’s what someone’s looking for, then you just need to go start a company now, a for profit company and slog it out with the rest of the people. But this is a very special. Space. It’s also what allows me and gives me the energy and courage to just make it through my day job, because that’s not my passion.

Like you said, you [00:25:00] could see my face light up. This is my passion. And so there’ll be a lot of lean times. There have been a lot of lean times, but it’s been more.

Kimberly: I also hear you as you share, what keeps you going on those bright days when you’re able to see the difference that your organization is making in Zimbabwe right now, if you had a magic wand right now, what would you do for your organization?

Ayanna Nahmias: If I had a magic wand right now, I would hire a fund raising directly. And the social media manager. I understand from being in my sphere, that we all bring skills and we’re really good at things and not everyone is good at everything. So although I can do some of those pieces, if I [00:26:00] had a magic wand, I would hire an expert because I think that is what helps you to grow and take it to the next level.

Kimberly: You have a well-established organization operating at the farm. You have all of those trusted people around you, and you have a great base of, of directors, your board of directors and others who are supporting different aspects of the organization. And what you see now is your next step is having someone who can actively and in a focused way, fundraise for you and also look to engage a lot or a larger audience through.

Communications of all types, but particularly social media. That’s exciting to hear because you’ve laid the groundwork for your programs, right? You’ve laid the groundwork for a successful and high functioning non-profit organization. And so the next level is making sure that your fundraising is

Ayanna Nahmias: sustainable.

Sustainable and consistent [00:27:00] that we have people that want to not only support one aspect, but are willing to continuously support people, need a helping hand. But I truly believe in that teacher person to fit. Because that’s where you have long-term thing. And even in my life, somebody helped me to get to be an it business owner.

Somebody helped me and that’s my model. So that’s why, but I get frustrated. Cause I feel like I’m competing against people that are showing these kinds of images where people can feel good about helping someone down. And that’s not how humanity for me. We all have different skills. We’re all on different journeys.

And if I can give you that leg up, then you pass that on to someone else.

Kimberly: It’s the helper, helping the helpers. Ayanna. I want to address something with you. I was listening to a podcast that you did with your mother [00:28:00] and you referenced it at the beginning and your life with your father. In Africa and how he converted to Muslim and things started to change for you and your mother and your family.

Do you feel comfortable sharing a little bit about that and how did that feel at that time?

Ayanna Nahmias: It has informed so much of my life. As you say, we are American. My dad was involved in the civil rights. He was in the military, he just became radicalized. And part of that was being from Mississippi. That’s a very hard place to be.

Am. In America for people of color, especially back then, he was a brilliant man. He went to Ohio state and he did a double PhD and master’s program in physics and mathematics, but he was very damaged. He was damaged by the experiences that happened in the United States and the things that [00:29:00] happened to his family.

And he took that out on his family as. People do sometimes what is seen on the outside world is not what’s happening in the home. And right before we left, we converted to Islam, but we were nation of Islam. And when we went to Africa was when we became. Shiria Islam in Nigeria. The second time, when I escaped from my dad, with my brother and sister, we were in Northern Nigeria, which is where Boko Haram was founded and extreme form of Islam.

And women have absolutely no rights growing up in his household, especially when we went to Africa was really difficult. It’s my sister and brother and I, but he wasn’t strong. And so my dad always wished. My brother was like, I am, because he didn’t get that. There was always some level of [00:30:00] friction and anger and he took it out on me physically and he took it out on my mom physically.

And it was just a very abusive household. I have since forgiven my dad. Are still angry than the only person that it hurts is you. That’s why this mission is so important to me as well. But yeah, it was very physically abusive, very emotionally abusive. And both times that we escaped from Africa had he caught us.

We would have been killed. He would have killed my mom. And the second time he would’ve killed me. Some people are like, oh, my parents are going to kill me. Now. My dad really would have, would have killed us, but people didn’t know that. So that was so weird when I went to Zimbabwe. People were talking about this, man, I didn’t know, but I know that there are other people who live in abusive homes that have that same dynamic.

The outside never matches up with what’s [00:31:00] happening. Inside the house. I wish I could’ve known him better. I wish he had accepted me more. Even unto his death. He spoke to everyone. He spoke to my mother, my sister, my brother, but he would not take my calls. We never got to reconcile.

Kimberly: And yet here you are honoring him and family, right?

You and your mother and your brother and sister are so brave for leaving. And here you are. Having made so much good out of a very, what I can imagine, difficult childhood and experience and have now literally turned over the soil to grow something fresh, foundational, and sustaining for fellow Zimbabweans.

What an incredible

Ayanna Nahmias: story.

Easy. I [00:32:00] didn’t just arrive here like this. I did therapy. I did a lot of stuff. We just have to not be defined by our past because it’s crippling and we can do so much good for each other. If we see the humanity in each other and the failings as a parent, I now know he did the best that he could. We try our best, but we don’t know that impact that it has on our children until they grow up and talk with us and share their experience.

I like the way you put it. That is the soil from which my story Springs, this project Springs and my dream that it grows beyond me. And long after I’m gone, that it still benefits people and it’s positively sowing into the lives of others.

Kimberly: Thank you for sharing your story with me and for being so personal and so honest and open, I really appreciate it.

You’ve had an incredible life and I just want to thank you for everything that you do.

Ayanna Nahmias: Thank you, [00:33:00] Kimberly. Thank you. I’m so honored to be on your podcast. I’ve been talking about it forever. I called my mom right before I was like, yes. Thank you.

Kimberly: Are the key takeaways remaining true to your mission values and your why is consistent across most, if not all successful nonprofits and organizations, your donors want to see where their money goes.

Illustration and storytelling are paramount to a high functioning fundraising campaign. As your nonprofit or organization grows. Your story evolves. Once you remove yourself from the picture, your donors will still support. The mission and you’re very important, cause yes you can. I’m Kimberly. See you next time on accidental fundraiser and be sure to follow along wherever you get your audio.[00:34:00]

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