Accept that you’ll make mistakes. As a nonprofit, especially a new nonprofit, you will not do everything perfectly every single time. Know that you will make mistakes and accept that this is a part of the process. What will help with your success is identifying those mistakes and planning how to handle things differently moving forward so you don’t make the same mistake twice.
For someone who wants to set aside money to establish a Philanthropic Foundation or Fund, what does it take to make sure your resources are being impactful and truly effective? In this interview series, called “How To Create Philanthropy That Leaves a Lasting Legacy” we are visiting with founders of Philanthropic Foundations, Charitable Organizations, and Non Profit Organizations, to talk about the steps they took to create sustainable success.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Christina Garkovich.
With nearly 22 years of nonprofit experience, Christina Lim-Garkovich knows what it takes for charities to succeed. Having raised over $20 million throughout her career, Christina has helped numerous organizations reach and increase their fundraising goals. In 2019, Christina was chosen to serve as the VP, Philanthropy & Marketing for Unlimited Possibilities, formerly UCP of Orange County. In this role, she has focused her attention on building a philanthropic mindset, establishing a framework and building systems to increase revenue. With experience working for local, national and international nonprofits, Christina has expertise in managing small to multimillion dollar organizations. Christina’s long-time experience in major gifts, foundation and corporate giving, individual giving and event fundraising has made her an invaluable asset to each organization that she has had the honor to partner with, including Unlimited Possibilities.
In addition to her tenure in the industry, Christina founded the Uncork for Hope Foundation. Her vision and leadership as a founder led to the organization raising over $800,000 and granting fourteen charities vital funds to serve at-risk children. She has been widely recognized as an industry leader, earning and maintain her certification as a fundraising executive from CFRE International for several years. Christina continues to be a community leader by holding board membership and leadership positions with several organizations. She is fulfilling her passion of supporting organizations’ missions and transforming them into reality.
Christina previously served as the Director of Development of Boys Town California for seven years. Before her tenure at Boys Town California, Christina served at Web Wise Kids, a national non-profit, as the Chief Development Officer. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree from California State University, Long Beach. She lives in Irvine, CA with her husband and three kids.
Thank you for making time to visit with us about a ‘top of mind’ topic. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today?
I grew up in a low income family, so I feel like the families and the people that I serve in my current role and the organizations I’ve supported during my career have always been representative of non-affluent, lower socio-economic status. For me, I’m advocating for and helping families that are like mine. They can use the support, resources, and programs that Unlimited Possibilities offers. My upbringing is probably the main reason I do what I do.
More specifically, I’m first generation in the United States, and my grandparents and father came from China. When I was in college, I found out that my grandparents, who were a doctor and a nurse, had their own medical practice for families that couldn’t afford medicine while living in China. Patients would offer to pay with chickens or vegetables and items like these because they couldn’t afford to pay with cash. My grandparents were the first to pave the way and teach our family that it’s about giving back to the greater community because that’s how we’re going to be better people in the future. I wasn’t alive when my grandparents had their practice, but I really connected with that story when I heard it. Nonprofit principles and a desire to help the greater community are in my blood.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? We would love to hear a few stories or examples.
- Perseverance: I did not have an easy start to life, and I needed perseverance from day one. I have had a lot of challenges along the way, whether it be family challenges, personal challenges, etc. and being able to push things aside has helped me grow. Despite the challenges, I keep going because I know there is something bigger just beyond the challenge to focus on, whether it be continuing to serve my community or to be an example for my children.
- Make mistakes and forgive yourself for making those mistakes: No one is perfect, and we make mistakes all the time. As a leader, you have to be able to make those mistakes and figure out how to not make similar mistakes going forward. Part of this growth is accepting that mistakes happen, but what counts is how we respond afterwards.
- Be a transparent leader: My colleague, the CEO of Unlimited Possibilities, and I are very connected on this. We are both very transparent leaders, sometimes people may say to a fault. We believe in sharing both the positives and the challenges with our team, which can sometimes be a large burden for people to take on. However, we want there to be an open door honesty policy at the end of the day. If one of my team members asks me a question, I’m going to give them an honest answer. I don’t believe in sugarcoating anything because my team deserves to know just as much as I do. I’ve found that this transparency leads to success and growth within our team.
An example that ties together these three traits would be our team’s response to the COVID pandemic. While our therapy center remained open as an essential business, our admin team went remote and gave up the office space to help with social distance spacing. Like many employees, we were forced to connect digitally. Being on the senior leadership team at this time was challenging because I knew a lot of information about how the organization was planning to handle potential furloughs, layoffs and office changes, which were causing my team a lot of stress and anxiety. These uncertainties spanned over weeks, then months and ultimately a year and a half of navigating these changes. I chose to be completely honest with my team the whole way. Senior leadership took a pay cut so that we could keep our team, and I told my team this as a way to inspire them. I wanted them to understand that we believe in them and that we value them in hopes of relieving some of that anxiety. This was information that they didn’t necessarily need to know, but that transparency helped build trust and push through this really hard time.
What’s the most interesting discovery you’ve made since you started leading your organization?
I was with Boys Town for seven years before joining Unlimited Possibilities, and at the time that I left, I felt like I was ready to be a CEO, leading a nonprofit rather than just a department. My current CEO at Unlimited Possibilities helped me realize that to be a successful CEO, there was a lot more I needed to learn. I realized that I needed to take a step back, especially after the challenges of the last few years and grow within this organization by being a strong leader among the executive team. What can I specifically bring to this team? How do we together define success and individually contribute?
In learning about myself and my leadership style, I know I’m an analyzer. I take what people say, but don’t automatically respond because I want to ensure that I have a thoughtful answer. During our executive meetings, I speak when I need to speak but am not always the most vocal, especially in difficult conversations. I’m working with our current CEO on being able to respond immediately with my best feedback and being ok with not being perfect all the time. I need to set aside my perfectionist brain and say whatever is on my mind at that moment. I often step away from a meeting and think of the perfect response only afterwards. Our CEO challenges me in these meetings now, asking me what I think, and that pushes me to be a little quicker.
Can you please tell our readers more about how you or your organization intends to make a significant social impact?
Unlimited Possibilities has been around for 70 years in Orange County, focusing on inclusion as our primary goal. We aim to create this inclusivity, whether that be at home or at school or within the community, for those with disabilities where they don’t feel like an outsider, but instead exactly where they should be in life.
Unlimited Possibilities also stands for access for all. Despite having a language barrier or being socioeconomically challenged or facing another hardship, families are able to come to our organization regardless of these barriers to receive the specialized care that is needed. Our main goal is to be able to provide care for everyone.
What makes you feel passionate about this cause more than any other?
My mom worked for a school district as an interpreter and an assistant to the hearing impaired, and I grew up around kids that didn’t look like me, talk like me, act like me, and it was normal. Fast forward to when I had my own children, I started to realize that they had speech and mobility delays, so I had to search out the resources my children needed to be able to hit the developmental milestones they needed to hit. My boys still attend speech therapy at Unlimited Possibilities. My daughter went to speech therapy for two-and-a-half years and didn’t walk until she was almost two. This process really affected me. While it was easy to navigate the system because I had a job, insurance, and can speak English, I started to think about all the families that needed specialized care but didn’t have the resources. I do what I do so that families like mine don’t ever have to be without access to this care.
It’s challenging for people to really feel passionate about causes that don’t directly affect them. When you don’t see it and it’s not a part of your life, it’s hard to understand. Unlimited Possibilities has a very specific mission that many do not feel affect them. But what people don’t understand is that we serve over 160 different diagnoses, including acquired disabilities. A disability affects not just an individual, but a family and the greater community. It is a lifelong journey.
Without naming names, could you share a story about an individual who benefitted from your initiatives?
There are so many, but one child and family sticks out in my mind. This particular child had an acquired disability, or a disability that was a result of an accident rather than him being born with it. He was born typical, but at two years old he fell into the swimming pool and drowned. After being taken to the emergency room, the doctors told his parents that he’d essentially be in a vegetative state for the rest of his life, never being able to walk, run, or eat like a normal person, and discussed the possibility of removing him from life support.
His mom is an incredible woman and refused to give up on her child. She sought out different types of places that could provide the support her son needed, including Unlimited Possibilities. Today, her son is ten years old and has been receiving therapy for many years with us. While he’s still in a wheelchair, he has shown progress. Just the other day, our CEO and I saw this mom and her child in our parking lot getting ready to come in for therapy. She’s lifting him into his wheelchair, and he lifted his head to face her and smiled. We saw the look in her eyes when she saw him smile and immediately ran out to her. Our CEO began talking with the child, and he started making noise, indicating that he was responding back to her, and he had such light in his eyes. That is why you don’t give up.
This story resonates, because it’s one of those instances where people think what we do doesn’t affect them until it does. An acquired disability is never something that’s planned. This mother never thought she’d have a child with a disability. He was typical until this accident and their lives changed in a split second.
We all want to help and to live a life of purpose. What are three actions anyone could take to help address the root cause of the problem you’re trying to solve?
- Educate yourself. People often think of disabilities with a singular focus. They think individually of Cerebral Palsy or Down Syndrome or Autism, but there is a wide range of other disabilities, including ADHD, traumatic brain injuries, speech delays, etc., and more often than not many are connected. Understand the breadth of this spectrum and how the community responds, or doesn’t. To continue personal learning, I encourage people to get involved in an organization or community that caters to this group to understand what life is like for them as people and to relate to any shared experiences.
- Educate the next generation. Having a disability shouldn’t be a negative. My mom taught me this through her work in the school district as an interpreter and an assistant to the hearing impaired. I was exposed to so many different types of people, I never thought anything was different. We have a responsibility to the next generation to teach them that people come in all shapes, sizes, colors, etc. This doesn’t make any of them less deserving than anyone else.
- Educate your company. As a leader, make sure that your corporate insurance provides access for employees and their families who need disability services. Similarly, prioritize having a diversity & inclusion committee and policy to ensure that inclusion is happening and that the workplace is somewhere all employees can thrive.
Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Create A Successful & Effective Nonprofit That Leaves A Lasting Legacy?”
- Ensure that you are doing your market research. Make sure that you are not doing the same thing as another person or organization. If there are a lot of organizations with overlap, all of them are fighting for the same dollars which will put all of them at a disadvantage. If there is a similar organization to what your goal is, perhaps join the board instead of creating your own.
- Gather a group of individuals who believe in your cause. An organization cannot be run by one person. A board is needed not only because that’s part of the bylaws and articles of incorporation, but also because a founder will not be able to survive on his or her own if he or she does not have the support or funding. To get this funding, it’s imperative to gather those who believe in the organization’s mission.
- Create a mission, vision, and values for what you hope your organization will accomplish. Ask yourself what your hopes and dreams are for this organization. What do you hope to achieve? Let those answers guide the development of the mission, vision, and values and the conversations with the board about how you are going to achieve them step by step. If every step that you take is not leading towards that ultimate goal of your mission, then you’re doing it wrong.
- Build a network of community partners. This is essential because the organization cannot achieve its mission alone. It takes a village. At Unlimited Possibilities, we don’t claim to do it all. We claim to do a lot, all under one roof with six programs in one place to receive disability services, but at the end of the day we don’t offer everything. When somebody comes to us needing other types of specialized therapy that we don’t offer, we send them to an organization that handles what specifically they need. This network of partners ultimately allows you to build a strong group of resources to best serve your community. The ability to work across organizations also looks great to funders.
- Accept that you’ll make mistakes. As a nonprofit, especially a new nonprofit, you will not do everything perfectly every single time. Know that you will make mistakes and accept that this is a part of the process. What will help with your success is identifying those mistakes and planning how to handle things differently moving forward so you don’t make the same mistake twice.
My involvement as a founder with an organization called Uncork for Hope is an example that speaks to each of the above points. Uncork for Hope opened as a response from another nonprofit, Boys Town California, I was involved with shutting its doors. Upon the closure, three board members approached me expressing interest in continuing the shuttered organization’s mission. I immediately jumped in, and we had four founders, and we asked every board member from our previous organization to join the new board. Every single person did, because we all believed in helping the community. We officially created Uncork for Hope in 2017 with 17 board members, which is pretty incredible for a starting nonprofit. We ultimately created a foundation that raises money to help at-risk children across the state of California. While we don’t provide any services, we are raising money and supporting others, which helped us stand out from other nonprofits in the area.
How has the pandemic changed your definition of success?
My definition of success before the pandemic was just to raise as much money as we could for our organization. Now we define success by our ability to create a greater awareness of our organization. If that awareness is there, the money will come. The pandemic really changed the way we think about fundraising and the way we fundraise. It made us redefine what our core goals are, outside of our financial benchmarks. We are more thoughtful about the strategy of getting to that financial goal and our messaging. During the pandemic it was all about messaging. We couldn’t be in front of people, couldn’t have events, couldn’t do anything physical. We were challenged with continuing these conversations that were driven by in-person activations through videos, emails, social media, etc. to get people to understand our mission and understand what we are trying to accomplish. The pandemic really made us think outside of the typical nonprofit philanthropy box.
How do you get inspired after an inevitable setback?
I visit our therapy center to see all the kids we serve every single day, some of whom I’ve watched for the last four years since I started with Unlimited Possibilities. Seeing kids who came through our doors who couldn’t walk or couldn’t eat unassisted and now being able to even take one step or swallow food for the first time or say I love you to their parents — that’s what reinvigorates me and reminds me why I do what I do. I’m also reminded that my challenges are incomparable to the ones these families face every day. I tell myself to get up, stop ho-humming, and figure my stuff out, because if they can do this every day, so can I. Our team is with these families through every struggle, win and milestone, and it reminds me that these are the stories of inspiration that I need to tell and have our community celebrate.
Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your non-profit? He, she, or they might just see this, especially if we tag them.
I would love to have a conversation with either Jeff Bezos or Dolly Parton. Jeff Bezos just announced he was distributing his wealth to various philanthropic efforts, and I’d love for Unlimited Possibilities to be considered. Dolly Parton has also been a great advocate for children throughout her career, so I’d love to meet with her about our message, what we’re trying to accomplish, and hear about our latest innovations because perhaps she might be interested in supporting us.
You’re doing important work. How can our readers follow your progress online?
Please follow Unlimited Possibilities on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn. Readers can also follow me on LinkedIn. For those looking to get involved within our organization either through volunteering or making a donation, please visit https://uptheimpact.org/.
Thank you for a meaningful conversation. We wish you continued success with your mission.