Marissa Jachman of Erin Levitas Foundation: 5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Lead A Nonprofit Organization
While making positive change is at the forefront of nonprofit work I feel it’s important to know that starting a nonprofit involves gaining knowledge about many laws, rules and regulations. Financial responsibilities as a part of any nonprofit, just like in any business. These rules, regulations and policies are there for a reason, but it’s not easy to get a nonprofit established and it’s a lot of work to keep it up. I heard an entrepreneur say that you have to love what you do. In those hard moments and on those difficult days your passion, drive and belief in the mission keeps you going. I find that sentiment similar in the nonprofit world. I have found mentors in varied areas of my life and reach out to them and the board for advice and guidance in many situations, especially when it comes to rules and regulations on all levels.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Marissa Jachman, Executive Director of the Erin Levitas Foundation.
Marissa is an experienced development professional with more than a decade of experience working with non-profits. Recognizing the importance of the Erin Levitas Foundation’s mission and the impact it could have on preventing sexual assault and rape, Marissa has worked hard to grow the organization and expand its reach. Now a mother of two young boys, Marissa is committed to sharing her cousin Erin’s story through the Erin Levitas Foundation and continuing Erin’s legacy by reducing the incidence of sexual assault and increasing support for those who have experienced it.
Thank you so much for doing this with us. Before we begin our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”?
I’ve always been drawn to making positive change and helping people, whether it’s teaching my kids to pick up trash or recognizing someone in need around us and discussing how we can be helpful. I’m a creative person so my brain has always tried to think about innovative solutions to problems. In college, I remember doing a fundraiser for Hurricane Katrina. We got all the local organizations involved because people wanted to help but couldn’t figure out how they could; we connected them to make an impact. I loved working with Operation Smile in college; we’d engage college students to donate in different ways, whether it was meal system points or cash to fund a cleft palate surgery abroad. I enjoy connecting people so that they can be change makers. Out of college, I chose the for-profit route since I had a feeling I’d end up in the nonprofit world, and I was right. I’m happy I started the way I did so that, when I entered the nonprofit world, I knew the decision was right for me since I had experienced the for-profit culture. My family is filled with entrepreneurs, and I think I bring entrepreneurism to the nonprofit world, one of the many exciting areas of doing nonprofit work. My jobs ranged from sales to volunteer programming, and I spent many years at varied positions in fundraising, from entering data and managing mailings at a social service agency to working at the American Red Cross Headquarters Principal and Major gifts teams supporting local and national fundraising efforts on campaigns like Measles and Rubella, Home Fires, women’s giving with the Tiffany’s Circle and leadership giving. I’ve made my way through different experiences, personal and professional, from working with young adult leaders and people in developing countries to becoming a mom. Each experience has led me to and fed my interest in the work I do today.
Can you tell us the story behind why you decided to start or join your non nonprofit?
My first cousin, Erin Levitas, passed away from cancer at 22. She was going to go to law school to work on sexual assault prevention and support survivors after a personal experience with rape by a friend. Studies show that more than 73% of rapes are committed by someone the survivor knows. When Erin was sick, she was so frustrated that she wasn’t going to get to do the work she wanted to do in this world to help people not experience the harm she had. She was a true light in this world and a fighter. We, her family, were not going to let her life’s work end with her physical life’s end and decided to do something. As I learned more about the need for sexual assault prevention, we partnered with the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, which was doing innovative work in dispute resolution and violence prevention. Becoming a mom myself, I was enlightened by the potential in prevention yet I hadn’t heard a lot about it. I was a parent-to-be. After learning more about the positive impact we could potentially have on early attitudes and behaviors kids could learn that may help lower their risk of causing or receiving harm, I felt we could help to get this work out there to more people and communities. It’s just as much focusing on preventing a child from becoming a survivor as it focuses on a child not becoming a perpetrator. Every caregiver, community member and educator deserves to know the skills to support prevention. We recognize prevention can take a long time; it’s underfunded, and it can be a hard story to tell by “proving the negative” — showing people that less harm is happening from your work. We were up for the challenge. While it was something different from anything I had done before I saw the need, I had the personal connection through my cousin, and my new view as a parent helped me recognize why starting early was so important. Erin’s parents and grandparents decided to stand up and support the initial program funding and asked the community and angel investors to join them — and we haven’t looked back. Every day I love this work because it’s deep in the possibility of one child, one family or one person not being impacted by the irreparable harm that can color their whole future.
Can you describe how you or your organization aims to make a significant social impact?
Sexual violence isn’t going away unless we do something to prevent it from happening. It’s part of society, and we have to put in significant effort in awareness, education, research and advocacy to make change. People don’t know prevention is possible; we want to change that and invite them to be a part of prevention. I remember the first time attending a community event that we had our tablecloth with the words “sexual assault prevention” printed on it in big letters. Some people walked by almost afraid of us while others came up and said, “thank you for doing this work.” It was clear awareness was going to be an important step in prevention even though sexual assaults are in the news and statistically one in five women experience an attempted or completed rape. It may be hard to believe, but a report stated that nearly 50% of middle school students reported experiencing sexual harassment, a know precurser to sexual assault. It seems many people feel it won’t happen to them or isn’t happening in their community. But sexual violence, while more prevalent within certain communities, can happen to all people in all communities. Sexual violence is a big problem, and many factors contribute to it. I realized I had a role in this work as I kept speaking to people, and prevention wasn’t on people’s radar. I got educated and surrounded myself with industry leaders and those doing different parts of the prevention process. I’m always meeting incredible people whom we continue to collaborate with. That is how we will do this work — together. The University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law and School of Social Work, with whom we work closely, take a holistic approach to prevention. We include individuals from all areas, from the kids themselves to their families, educators and communities to impact change. We help people recognize the issue, understand that prevention is possible and realize they have a role to play in it. Guess what? It sounds scary: me, having a role in prevention? Yes, everyone can play a role. We don’t have to be perfect, but we can start healthy conversations, boundaries and protective skills early. It’s important that once awareness is there that education comes in. Educating youth, educators, parents, caregivers and professionals who work with young people can help change the attitudes and behaviors that give rise to harm and build the protective skills that support healthy relationships. That work includes families modeling healthy skills at home and a teacher responding to sexual harassment in a way that supports reducing the chances that early signs of harm will escalate to sexual assault in the future. We also want to see adoption — changes in attitude, beliefs and actions. The good news is that each step of the process can be impactful and important. I want everyone to have access to being a part of prevention.
Without saying any names, can you share a story about an individual who was helped by your idea so far?
We’re still early in our work. I can say that we know children are learning they have body autonomy for the first time. They are realizing they have the power to make choices over their bodies. I’ve heard many families who use our children’s book “Every Body Talk” in conversations around boundaries with their children when scenarios come up in life and they don’t quite know what to say, whether a friend crossed a boundary or children were going to a sleepover. A story I often share is of my child correcting an adult’s behavior. We were packing up to leave after a playdate, and a dad asked my son to give his daughter a hug goodbye — she was too young to speak at the time. At that moment, my son paused. He looked at the dad and looked at his friend. Then he looked at me and said, “But, mommy, what does she want?” We want early conversations about bodies and boundaries and healthy modeling to happen so more kids can have the skills that can reduce harm to others, according to research.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
First, learn more about sexual harassment and sexual assault. Recognize the issue. Sign up for newsletters to receive information from organizations such as your local Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
Second, understand that prevention is possible and be a part of the solution. We are all at different walks of life, and being a part of prevention may look different. If you’re a parent, caregiver or grandparent of a child from birth to age 14, you can start teaching protective skills. This effort includes teaching anatomical terms of their body parts, model healthy boundaries (for example, by not forcing hugs, you help kids recognize they and others have boundaries that can be respected), have conversations about how they can talk to you or a trusted loved one about anything, help build social-emotional skills to recognize how others may be feeling, like stating an emotion in a situation (“Wow! It looks like you’re really angry”) or help them notice an emotion relevant to a facial expression (“it looks like Sam thought that was funny, or is he nervous?”). Keep communicating with them; it’s a lifelong conversation, no matter the age.
Lastly, don’t silo your education. Share it. Become an advocate, speak to others when you see something relevant in the news, learn alongside family and fellow parents about prevention.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I see leadership as a collaborative process. In college, I learned from a professor that when we collaborate everyone rises together and feels good about the solution versus when people compromise or appease and basically lose something in the solution. I recognize everyone brings value with perspective and experience. I even feel what people recognize they don’t know can be insightful. It was a true collaboration co-writing the children’s book “Every Body Talk” about starting early conversations and building protective skills to support healthy relationships. I knew what I knew and what I didn’t know, and the others we brought in knew the same about themselves. We all valued each other for our perspectives and recognized when we collectively didn’t know something. I’m a white woman and a mom, and my co-author is a white male and a dad. Representation matters, especially in sexual violence prevention. We wanted to make sure all children were seen and represented in this book so that, when they looked through the pages, they knew the lessons and right to boundaries applied to them. We had gender violence experts and brought in child sexual abuse experts. We worked with Chimi Boyd-Keyes, a racial and gender equity consultant, and made decisions like adding in a young Black boy as a character once we were already two pages into the book. We decided to change one child’s brush to a comb in an illustration because it was brought to our attention that the child would likely use a comb, not a brush. We worked with Emily Ladau, a disability rights activist, and exchanged many emails about the type of wheelchair a young girl should be in with one of the book’s illustrations. We added the line “please don’t touch my wheelchair” to include mobility devices in boundaries and ensure all children know that boundaries apply to them too. We worked together to represent many children because all children need to know this book and that the message of empowerment within it is for them. With collaboration, this project became everyone’s project, and it still is. It is a better resource because of it.
Based on your experience, what are the “5 things a person should know before they decide to start a non profit”. Please share a story or example for each.
- While making positive change is at the forefront of nonprofit work I feel it’s important to know that starting a nonprofit involves gaining knowledge about many laws, rules and regulations. Financial responsibilities as a part of any nonprofit, just like in any business. These rules, regulations and policies are there for a reason, but it’s not easy to get a nonprofit established and it’s a lot of work to keep it up. I heard an entrepreneur say that you have to love what you do. In those hard moments and on those difficult days your passion, drive and belief in the mission keeps you going. I find that sentiment similar in the nonprofit world. I have found mentors in varied areas of my life and reach out to them and the board for advice and guidance in many situations, especially when it comes to rules and regulations on all levels.
- Your board is important. I was taught early by a board member that “I’d rather know than not know since it’s my role and responsibility to oversee the organization.” The board is there to advise and help; it’s their responsibility. You can reach out to experts and volunteers along the way as well. Know your strengths and areas where you need extra support as a leader. It’s important to have a well-rounded leadership for the organization, and with time or from the beginning, leadership should represent the communities you serve. Beyond the board, be sure to ask for help! Volunteers are so important. I definitely reach out to individual board members for specific high-level questions that connect to their area of expertise. We also have an incredible group of volunteers within our advisory board who focus on more specific areas of support versus the board of directors who supervise, oversee and assess.
- It’s OK not to have it all perfect in some cases. You will face risks, innovations and lots of decisions. It’s important to recognize which projects need more time and investment and where you can take risks. For our work at the Erin Levitas Foundation, our subject material needs to be healing-centered and trauma-informed for working with individuals who may have experienced trauma. It is worth slowing down and assessing a project to ensure harm will not be caused by an early rollout, even if everyone is eager and excited about its debut. We often have several people in relevant fields of work review our blogs. We recently collaborated with many people from different organizations and communities for our upcoming project about community conversations to bring early sexual violence prevention into the lives of youth. Sometimes bringing in more people takes more time, but it can also result in an incredible product.
- You get to make decisions, I continually choose to work with good, kind and caring people and companies when we can. It’s served us well. I recall a situation with a company we considered working with, but its values didn’t align with the work we do, so we didn’t move forward. When it comes to making decisions, it’s OK to invest in hiring experts when needed if pro bono isn’t an option. Having quality work that is safe for the community you serve is important. Don’t worry about not knowing how to do everything. Focus on bringing in the right people to recognize, represent and include what you don’t know as a leader. Partner when you can. Partnerships can elevate everyone’s mission, share resources and help you spread your impact and get the individuals or communities you serve more resources or support.
- Recognize the importance of fundraising, forecasting and spending time on your mission, vision, impact and measurements. Each item here takes time and deserves time. These areas of focus will keep you on track and honest if you’re going to meet your goals. I remember at one of the organizations I worked for I started midyear. I added up all the expected income and put it against our budget left for the year; the numbers didn’t add up. It was a hard reality for the organization, but if we were going to hit our goals and raise the funds to provide the programming we wanted, we had to have a plan on how we were going to raise that income. That’s the hard truth of each of these areas, and it’s important to have your measurements to evaluate all these areas. You may realize it’s time to cut a program because it is not reaching the goals set, or the goals help you discover something else greater that is happening. Measurement also makes for a great storyteller for your community and grants. Each of these areas may adjust and adapt. Working on them can be an excellent way to engage and update the board as well.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your non profit? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Oprah Winfrey. Her life experiences, triumphs and incredible impact on individuals and communities have always felt like a fit with our work. She recognizes people’s stories as unique and worthy, and so do we. Oprah is working to build a movement of empathy, empowerment and excellence. I think we could do great things collaborating together. Our work gives people the opportunity to have a role in prevention that can impact lives for the better. We always need partners who have the vision and understanding that preventing sexual assault is possible. We could use help in spreading the word about the importance of starting prevention early and the opportunity communities have to impact safer futures. Oprah’s ability to move people and communities toward positive change is inspiring, and she stands behind it with incredible philanthropy.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson” Quote? How is that relevant to you in your life?
“Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Some individuals believe Mahatma Gandhi didn’t say this, but I heard this quote early in my life and have remembered it. I think we should leave the world a better place from when we entered it. I believe we have to do the work and get dirty. It’s not going to just happen or be easy.
How can our readers follow you online?
- Facebook: @ErinLevitasFoundation
- Instagram: @erinlevitasfdn
- Subscribe to our newsletter: www.erinlevitas.org/newsletter
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your mission.
Marissa Jachman of Erin Levitas Foundation: 5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Lead A… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.