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'I left a $250,000 salary to run a charity startup. Here's what no one tells you about taking a leap.'

I said goodbye to financial security to found a charity startup. This is what it's like to leave a "money job" to be a social entrepreneur.
Image: Startup office
The rosy picture of a charitable startup — getting scrappy, living a pared-down life with more meaning — leaves out some of the big pitfalls social entrepreneurs face.Vasyl Dolmatov / iStockphoto/Getty Images

Giving up the chance to make more than $250,000 a year to instead be the co-founder of a charity startup was the best decision I could have made.

I’m far from alone. These days more and more people, particularly millennials like me, are going the way of social impact entrepreneurship. Social enterprises are being called “the new black,” “a new paradigm for business,” even “a possible future for global capitalism.” It’s little surprise, given that one survey found 94 percent of millennials want to use their skills to benefit a cause.

But the rosy picture this can create — getting scrappy, living a pared-down life with more meaning — leaves out some of the big pitfalls social entrepreneurs face. There’s a lot that I didn’t know before making the jump from investment banking to launching Givz. These are lessons I’ve learned along the way.

1. You will question your decision, often

I’ve often gone to bed filled with worries. And I’ve had nightmares — recurring dreams that everything fell apart, or a big contract fell through. Of course, I’ve had these worries during the day, too.

I’ve learned to counteract these fears by asking myself one question: If I still had my old job, and was offered the chance to leave it and take over Givz today, would I say yes? My answer has always been yes. That’s how I know I’m on the right path.

2. You will fall into the “grass is greener” trap

It’s easy to daydream about having no financial worries. I’m fortunate that my wife has steady work, which has allowed us to take this risk. Then again, we have our first child on the way, which of course increases stress.

I’ve taken on a new mindset about money: that it’s like blood. You need enough, and a little extra in case you need a transfusion. But in general, having boxes of stored blood is not necessary right now. We have enough.

More importantly, because of the nature of my work, I get to see every day how incredibly fortunate we are. I’m constantly interacting with charities that serve people in awful conditions — people in real dire straits. When you see pure gratitude and joy on someone’s face because of what you've created, it’s the most powerful reward. Always keep in mind the people you’re aiming to help. It restores perspective.

3. People will think it’s going better than you feel it is

Anytime you’re able to announce a step forward — some funding raised, for example — you’ll get lots of congratulations from people you know. They won’t know all the blood, sweat and tears that went into it. And they won’t know about your constant anxiety and exhaustion.

I’ve learned to play along, and tell people that things are, indeed, awesome. To share the highs, but not the lows. You want people in general to be excited about what you’re doing — and for that to happen, you need to project that excitement yourself. If you talk too much about the lows, pointing out how many startups fail for example, people think that you don’t fully believe in what you’re doing. To grow your enterprise, highlight the highs — and save the struggles for the people closest to you.

4. Celebrate your successes

For all these reasons and more, it’s important to pause and appreciate all the achievements along the way, both big and small. The first time we sent along a check to a charity that was donated through our platform, we took a moment to enjoy it. And recently, we signed a very exciting contract that can help millions of people donate to all sorts of causes. We could have immediately started worrying about the next steps — how to maximize the opportunity and get the work done — but we took a moment to congratulate each other on the accomplishment.

As a social entrepreneur, you have a different relationship to the work. No one’s telling you what to do, and there may be no one to tell you when you’ve done something good. So you have to make sure to own each achievement, and use it to energize you to tackle the next mountain of work.

To grow your enterprise, highlight the highs — and save the struggles for the people closest to you.

Ultimately, building a career around social impact is a win-win. Our metrics for success — growing the business; helping more and more charities; facilitating more donations, bringing more attention to social causes and more — involve doing good for everyone involved. It’s something I’d never get being a cog in a wheel at a company.

As my future child grows up, I want him or her to see that. That you can live by purpose. You can create something aimed at doing good in the world. It takes a leap of faith. But it’s worth it.

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