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Podcast | Founding and Scaling a Nonprofit Org From the Ground Up

What does it take to start and scale a nonprofit? Elana Frank is still learning, and she’s sharing her lessons in this episode of the Go Beyond Fundraising podcast.

Frank is the founder and CEO of the Jewish Fertility Foundation, which provides financial assistance, support, and education to those struggling with infertility. In just nine years, the nonprofit has grown to eight locations across the country. She discusses what she’s learned while scaling the organization, including the qualities she seeks in those hired to lead each location.

Frank also emphasizes how important it is for founders and CEOs to work with a professional business coach, as well as why all leaders need to slow down sometimes and give themselves some grace.

Want to hear more? Listen to the full episode:

Connect with Elana Frank

Read the blog One-on-One with Elana Frank: Founding and Scaling a Nonprofit

Get more Go Beyond Fundraising Podcasts



Host: Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Fundraising Today and the Go Beyond Fundraising podcast. Today, I’m joined by a really special guest that I’ve been looking forward to welcoming on the podcast for some time, and that is Elana Frank. Elana, welcome to the show!


Elana Frank: Thank you for having me.


Host: Yeah! Elana, you are the founder of the nonprofit organization, Jewish Fertility Foundation. Before we get started, I’d love to learn a little bit more about you and the story about how you came to found JFF.


Elana Frank: Awesome, thank you! So, like many of us in this infertility nonprofit space, it’s personal for me. I have three kids born from various fertility treatments. My first two children were born in Israel after my husband and I got married. And it was a really stressful, somewhat long, complicated journey to figuring out even a diagnosis for what was wrong with me. It was very lonely; it was very isolating. Obviously, you’ll hear in my voice, I’m American. I wasn’t sharing with my parents back home what was going on.


And once I was able to get a diagnosis from a doctor, I was very lucky to be able to have two kids from IVF for free through the Israeli Socialized Medicine program. And when I came back to America is when I understood — first of all, it was a lot easier to talk about what I had gone through when I had two little babies with me. I was on the other side. And I understood how expensive fertility treatments are in America. And our government doesn’t provide socialized medicine, so there’s an exorbitant amount of money that people are spending on treatments. And insurance is not mandated to cover any pieces of it in America.


So, I was still on my journey. It took me another five years to have my third child through embryo donation. And during that time nine years ago is when I had the idea: let’s help people so that they don’t have to go through what I went through. And so, our organization was inspired by wanting to help start off paying for fertility treatments. And once I brought a group of really amazing founding board members to the table, we understood it wasn’t about the money; it was also about the emotional support and education that really completes the full package of our offerings.


Host: That’s such an amazing journey that you went through, and I love that your instinct after going through all this was to try to make these treatments more accessible to more people. In starting a nonprofit, had you had any prior experience working in the nonprofit space or doing any kind of fundraising on your own? What was your background there when you decided you wanted to start your own nonprofit?


Elana Frank: So, that’s a good question, and now I see a lot of others who have a really great idea but don’t really know where to start. So, luckily, I had already come from the nonprofit space. I have a master’s degree in nonprofit management. I had previously worked in New York in a community-organizing nonprofit, which really gave me the backbone to understanding how to build, how to bring people together. And bringing people together around a certain cause was really what we were doing in New York.


When I lived in Israel, I was straight-up a fundraiser for another great cause different than this. It was for an immigrant youth village, but raising money around a complicated issue was something I understood well. I can’t say nine years ago when I had this idea that I knew all the ins and outs, but I knew enough to ask questions, to get help, and really be able to rally people behind me with the idea. And then figured out a lot of it along the way.


Host: Yeah, since starting JFF, the organization has grown to eight locations. So, I know as a leader, there can be a lot of drive to want to control every aspect of the way that an organization grows and develops because you really care deeply about it. What were some of the steps along the way as you grew to more locations, and what were some of the things you learned through that journey?


Elana Frank: That’s a good question. I remember waking up in the middle of the night before JFF had its name. And I was really thinking about, what are we providing? How are we going to provide it? And what is my dream in the long run? And I decided on the name “Jewish Fertility Foundation.” Not where we started our first office, “Jewish Fertility Foundation Atlanta.” So, I really wanted to keep it as neutral as possible in the hopes that if our model and pilot in Atlanta goes well, then maybe we can offer this to more communities.


So, like I said before, community organizing is where I started. And one of the things that I really believe in is focusing small. So, also in this world of virtual amazingness and the world wide web, there are so many things that we can do virtually, but I think our sweet spot is face-to-face meeting, being present at the fertility clinics, making sure that we’re having therapy in person or with people nearby. And it was really that local piece that we piloted for about three years because we wanted to make sure we understood it was working. And could we take this on the road? It was a question. And, once we understood our three main pillars of our work, we’re like, “Okay, let’s figure out if we can grow it.”


And so, we piloted, in 2019, our second location in Cincinnati. And that whole experiment was about learning and writing down and tracking and evaluating and analyzing. Could this be replicated? We’re not a franchise, but could this be replicated in the ways that we hope, and what are the learning lessons? And the biggest thing that we learned — because it took about a year to build and bring to Cincinnati — the biggest thing we learned was when do we hire a local staff person? And from that 2019 model, we felt like we were ready to go. And as you said, today we’re in eight locations, soon to be 10.


Host: That’s so incredible to hear. When you are looking for that local person to get the next location off the ground, what are some of the qualities in that person?


Elana Frank: That’s a very good question, and it’s something we talk internally with our staff about a lot and with our board. Before we even meet that person or begin to put a job description out, there’s about a yearlong process going on in the new location with an exploratory committee, with people who are raising initial capital locally. Really working with our local lay leaders and volunteers to get the city up and running.


So, we already have ins into the city; we’re not looking to ever be an organization that comes and says, “We’re here, we’re planting our flag here.” There’s a lot of homework that’s done prior. So, by the time we’re looking for that local manager, number one, there are a lot of people in the community who are like, “I know the perfect person.” But what is that perfect person?


Well, we like to say it’s somebody who has the ability to be a connector. So, they’re connecting with a lot of people. They have to be very organized. They have to be a self-starter — almost like a mini-CEO because they have to have a lot of different abilities and traits. They have to be entrepreneurial, like a go-getter. (They’re) okay walking into a fertility clinic and saying “Hi, my name is whatever, we are ready to partner and work with you.” And at the same time, being able to table at a community festival and say, “Jewish Fertility Foundation is here for you. Would you like to volunteer? These are our services — do you need help?”


And they’re also on the backend doing a lot of organizational management around coordinating support groups, making sure they’re marketing to the clients, so that they understand who’s coming. It’s really a multifaceted type of personality, which isn’t easy to find. But we do notice that people that have a connection to this cause — whether they’re already a parent or they themselves have gone through infertility, they have that empathy to be able to work. Those are some of our best employees.


Host: What are some things that you’ve learned on the fundraising side of things, especially in expanding JFF to other locations?


Elana Frank: That’s a great question. So, we actually had an incident trying to open up our Detroit office, which is our most recent office. First of all, COVID — we didn’t see any significant fundraising issues; we really shifted very quickly to virtual everything. And so, it was a great time of growth for our organization and fundraising.


What was more challenging more recently was what’s going on in Israel after October 7. And I think it was that week, I was supposed to go to Detroit face-to-face for our parlor meeting. I think we were going to have 40-something women who were eager and excited to learn about potentially investing in our cause. And back and forth, do we cancel this? How insensitive? These are the target audience who are already going to be invested in Israel and making sure that the wellbeing of families and children in Israel are okay. And really going back and forth. And I remember talking to our local leadership, our board, and saying, “What do you think?” I got a lot of buy-in, and then I adjusted my expectations.


I said, “You know what? We are going to keep on going. I’m going to go there and talk with them, but maybe we’re not going to be able to raise money. Let’s be realistic. Maybe it’ll be half of the people that we expected to turn up.” In the end, I learned in this particular instance — and in the months following still today — that people are remarkable. People can be able to hold space for one cause while also wanting to contribute to others, both themselves as volunteers and as donors. And they said that to us. They said, “Listen, we’ve already donated to Israel. Please, we’d love to learn about another amazing cause, especially now.” And it was interesting because I think we had 40-something RSVP, and we had over 50 women attend, which is usually not the case in these types of parlor meetings.


But I learned in hard times, people really do want to be with one another, connect, and give back. And also refining your message, training your volunteers on what to say and perhaps what might not be good at this time to say. I think that those are all lessons that we learned.


Host: Is there anything else that you’ve learned through this journey as a leader that you would pass on to anyone else who is standing at the helm of a nonprofit and is facing some similar challenges that you faced?


Elana Frank: Yes, number one: development. So, even though you’re now at the top of your organization, I’ve been here nine years, and I am learning every single day about myself. And I wouldn’t be where I am today without my coach. I recommend every single leader get a professional coach. They’re not your therapist; they’re not your friend. They’re there to call you out; they’re there to build you up. And I think that has been one of the most important pieces.


I also love fellowships. They’re in the Jewish communal space. They’re really amazing opportunities to learn from peers, to learn from leaders in the community. I enjoy every second of it; it’s something that has really helped me.


I think one of the most important lessons I’m still learning, today and always, is as a founder and a CEO, you want to go in a million directions at one time. And for me, when I’m not being present and focusing on the task at hand, I tend to seem a little scattered. And that is not a great sign for your donors, for your board. You want to continue to be very strategic; and for me, if I’m not focusing and being present, I can seem a little frenzied.


Give yourself grace and work with your coach is what my number one recommendation would be.


Host: I love that brought that up because as a leader and someone who’s super ambitious and passionate about your cause, it can be very easy to be very painfully aware of what your weaknesses as a leader are and to hyper-focus on them to the detriment of being able to grow and lead the organization.


One, I’m curious if you experienced wrestling with some of those things and how you came out of it. And then my second question is, if you don’t have someone in your life who is a good business mentor, a good coach, how do you go about finding one?


Elana Frank: Yeah, this is a constant conversation, and it can get me really down because I’m self-aware in that I understand what’s happening when it’s happening. I’ll give you an example: last week, I was traveling. I had a lot of deadlines for grant proposals. I manage a staff of 15. And I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders, both professionally and personally. And I’m still running an organization. I knew I needed to respond to somebody on my board with a list of questions that they were asking, and I should have taken a beat and said, “Hold on, I can’t do this right now. Let me get to it next week.” It would have been fine, but I felt that pressure.


And as a response, my answers seemed kooky and weird and crazy because I felt like I needed to get it out instead of communicating what was going on. It makes me seem — the word is frenetic. So, I’ve been working with my coach. This is not a new issue — it happens in my marriage. It’s my personality — I want to do a million things at once, and I have to slow down.


So, through working with a coach, they’re really helping you create tools so that you’re aware of what’s happening and also how to fix it. Not like a therapist. So, for example, this week, I created my little rock, and it says, “Be present.” If I’m not present, I appear frenetic, which is kooky and crazy. So, I have to slow down.


And I think one of the ways to find a coach, first of all, is word of mouth. Nonprofit management groups like Georgia Nonprofit Center in Atlanta — those types of places can make a recommendation. Again, through the fellowship circuit in the Jewish communal world, lots of professional coaches are available. I’m sure they have a society or something — I’m making it up — but like a professional coaching society. You want somebody who’s experienced, in my opinion, who’s done this before, who has training. It’s not like you’re going to go to a random therapist — it’s the same.


And also, I would say test people out, because it very much has to work with your style. You want to trust this person, and it’s okay to say, “I’m not sure we’re going to click.”


Host: All great advice! So, looking ahead, what are some of the goals and aspirations that you have for the future of JFF, and any other goals that you have as a nonprofit leader?


Elana Frank: Yeah, so, right now, we are on track to open up one to three new locations annually. Scaling has been on our mind, of course, for the past couple of years. And we’re also very much looking deeper at our offerings, at how we’re opening up new locations, our criteria for opening up new locations. Being a little bit pickier at this juncture in the growth of our organization in terms of where we’re going next and how we’re going next.


And then, I would say most importantly right now, we are preparing for our 10th anniversary. We’re going to have a big event in January of next year, but it takes about a year to plan an event like this. We’re hoping to raise $1 million in order to continue building out our infrastructure and programming and being able to go deeper with our service offerings.


Host: Congratulations on the anniversary!


Elana Frank: Thank you!


Host: Is there anything else that you would want to share with someone who is sitting in your seat? Looking back, if you had done anything differently, what would you have done?


Elana Frank: Ooh, that’s a good question that you didn’t prep me for. That’s a very good question. I think going back to “me,” the CEO and the founder, and giving myself permission to not have to do it all at once. I think that, from day one to today, I’ve grown as a human and a leader, and knowing that — I wish I knew back then what I knew today. That there’s going to be a group of amazing, talented staff people who are my partners, amazing local volunteers, and a supportive board of directors.


If I could see how it turned out nine years later, I think it would have been a lot less lonely because I am surrounded by amazing human beings who all share the same desire to grow this organization and really be able to be helpful to people who are experiencing infertility.


Host: Elana, thank you so much for joining us today! I really enjoyed today’s conversation, and congrats again on coming up on that 10-year anniversary! And I hope that you go far beyond and exceed that $1 million goal and get to open up more locations to help more women who are struggling with infertility.


Elana Frank: I appreciate it. Thanks for having me!