4 years later: how to build a non-profit (without meaning to)

by Sophie Tarnowska, founder.

Four years ago tonight, on October 8, 2015, I sat down with 50 friends and strangers to what turned into the very first event for WeDoSomething Mtl, the non-profit I didn’t realize I was founding.

EAT + do good was a fun-raising dinner party to ‘feed our stomachs and nourish our conscience’. My friends and I cooked, chopped too many onions, and sold tickets to 50 almost-strangers who felt as powerless as we did about the refugee crisis — and it was incredible. We were able to raise over $7k to Doctors without Borders to care for Syrians who were displaced within Syria.

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That dinner was born from anger. I was angry at the refugee crisis, angry at waking up to an image of a 3-year old refugee boy dead on a beach, angry at seeing all of us posting our grief on social media instead of doing something with it, fed up with hashtags. I wanted to stop witnessing and start doing something. I wanted to be with other people who felt the same. I needed to soothe myself by figuring out who could help, and helping them. I wanted to be the answer to the question: what can I do to help? DO SOMETHING.

It was only when I had to write my TEDx talk and explain why the refugee crisis pushed me to action that I remembered that my father and grandparents as well as my stepmother had been refugees, he from Poland and she from Lebanon.

Creating that first dinner transformed my anger into fearlessness: I empowered myself and others. Since then, WeDoSomething has hosted 17 fun-raisers to bring you and I — the privileged who feel powerless as a result of consuming constant bad news — together with people who are in the news, and who merit our attention, our care and our respect.

So, since it’s been 4 years, here are 4 things I’ve learned:

  1. Helping others doesn’t exist. Because when we do something to support another human being, we lift them up — and somehow, we help ourselves. Cheesy and true.

  2. Work with organizations that come from the communities they serve: this is a form of respect for the culture and traditions they come from.

  3. People teach us how to help them, not the other way around. No matter which non-profit organization we want to help, our first job is always the same: listen and learn. They’re devoting precious time to educating us, and they get to decide how we support them in that goal.

  4. Listening is giving. Nothing is more generous, nothing has created bonds between me and the humans I meet more than the simple act of listening to the stories people want to share. Listening well is a superpower kinda kindness.

The goal of that first night — and of every fun-raiser since — remains the same: to bring us together with others, in community, as equals, with joy. To do each other good, and to feel good about it. To listen and learn from each other. And eventually, to do away with the word ‘other’.

In case you’re curious, we’ve had the joy of learning from and working with:

Indigenous organizations devoted to building community (Native Montreal), to preventing indigenous suicide (Dialogue for Life), to supporting indigenous women who need shelter (Native Women’s shelter)

Moisson Montreal, to fight hunger in our city (via Food Jenga, courtesy Mister Jaune)

Passages, to support 18–30 year old women who need a place to feel safe

The YMCA Residence, the Canadian Red Cross: often the first home and help for asylum seekers who leave everything to find safety here, though this is not all they do

Vétérimed Haïti and Haitian Health Care Foundation: because I love Haiti and hurricane Matthew did so much damage

Je Passe Partout, to prevent the 42% school dropout rate in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve from going any higher

…and so much more.

Tourisme Montréal team-building: turning employees into tour guides for new arrivals.

Tourisme Montréal team-building: turning employees into tour guides for new arrivals.

I now also offer what I’ve learned to organizations that want to do good while doing business, as a consultant. Thanks to years in the corporate world, I’m tired of seeing so much time and money being wasted on team-building/philanthropic activities that could make employees happier, brands more impactful and help communities too.

For now, please save the date for WeDoSomething Mtl’s 18th fun-raiser on the climate: a dinner party to protect the Amazon and give us tools to react and reduce both our contribution to climate change - and our anxiety about it.

RÉAGIS + do good is Wednesday, November 13th, save the date!

Tickets will be on sale soon, follow us on Facebook and Instagram!