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What does it take to grow a nonprofit? Ask Nourish International

While studying at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Sindhura Citineni decided she wanted to find a way to give back to her hometown of Hyderabad, India.

With advice and help from others, she started a group called Hunger Lunch on campus that sold lunches of beans and rice and cornbread to students. She used the proceeds to partner with a nongovernmental organization in India to make a high-protein and calcium-rich drink for children in slum areas.

The program continued for three years. “But we weren’t there (in the neighborhoods) day-to-day to make sure the same kids were getting the drinks” to enrich their diet. “And the community asked why were those 100 kids getting it while others weren’t,” Citineni said recently by phone.

“I was naïve,” she readily admits. “Since then, we’ve always partnered with the community and a local nonprofit, because they both are already invested” in the project and will keep it going once the initial funding streams ends.

Citineni changed the name to Nourish International and developed a model where students come up with their own money-making ventures on campus and choose where their profits go from a database of international projects aimed at alleviating poverty.

The students can visit the projects in person during their summer breaks. In Peru, for example, they’re building composting latrines. In Uganda, they’re teaching computer skills to locals who can then train others.

The grassroots organizations that partner with the campuses must be run by locals, in existence for at least two years and in developing nations where more than 50 percent of the community lives on less than $2 per day.

Since 2003, Nourish International has spread to 60 high school and college campuses and contributed to 113 projects in 28 countries. The group hopes to have a sustainable revenue stream and grow to 100 campuses in three years, said Kelly Leonhardt Phoenix, Nourish International’s executive director.

“Fundraising isn’t sustainable,” so instead of one-time fundraising events, the organization encourages students to create actual small businesses on campus — and cultivate a community around them — to generate recurring income, said Phoenix.

For example, on some college campuses that have a Greek system of sororities and fraternities, it’s a tradition in the spring for female students to ask male students to a dance or beach week by giving them decorated coolers filled with snacks and drinks, she said.

The student volunteers at Nourish International noticed the coolers piling up, and came up with the idea of recycling the coolers and selling them the following spring to students at a cheaper price than if they were new. The students snapped them up, and the Nourish volunteers ended up making thousands of dollars for their projects. The idea, which started on one campus, is now spreading to others.

“What’s neat about the Nourish students and their ventures is they’re taking a problem in their campus and turning it into a business” to fund their projects, said Phoenix.

Nourish International is getting more business-like itself. When the students started traveling to other countries to help with the projects, Nourish International worked with them to get travel and medical insurance. The organization is now an approved issuing office of travel insurance and can resell it to other students doing charitable work, said Phoenix.

The group also has a for-profit arm, called Shop Nourish, which sells jewelry, trinkets and bags made by local artisans. The proceeds help fund the nonprofit branch.

“Growth is tricky for a nonprofit. It’s harder for us to grow than businesses. We don’t have shareholders or investors, so we’re limited as to how much funding we can get,” Phoenix said. Nourish International is working with students to launch some of their businesses on a larger scale.

The Nourish chapters contribute a percentage of their earnings through the year back to the headquarters, said Citineni. The money goes toward founding new chapters, scholarships for students to participate in the projects during the summer, and a fund to invest in other chapters’ venture ideas.

Citineni, now 32, took some time off to take care of a sick family member and complete her pediatric dental residency. She recently moved back to North Carolina with her husband — who she met through Nourish International — and their 8-month-old baby, and says she’s ready to help Nourish International in any capacity it needs.

But she won’t be taking the reins. One of the things Citineni said she learned through starting Nourish International was that she is more an idea person than a manager. She said she hopes the students can figure out what they’re good at, too, through their volunteer experiences.

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