Build A Brand People Care About: When I started #HalfTheStory, it began as an art project. I don’t think people emphasize the importance of brand building when it comes to the non-profit space. There is a lot of competition and it’s critical to master your unique POV in the market.
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 Larissa May.
26-year-old Larissa (Larz) May is a trailblazing mental health advocate and founder of #HalfTheStory, a non-profit dedicated to empowering the next generation’s relationship with social media. Larz began her entrepreneurial journey as a student at Vanderbilt University, working as a fashion blogger, international correspondent and media expert. During her senior year amidst a battle with depression, Larz experienced a light bulb moment, realizing how social media was negatively impacting her life. With 250 dollars from her college dorm room, she set out on a mission to help others create more meaningful connections through social storytelling, thus launching #HalfTheStory. Within two years, #HalfTheStory grew into a globally recognized movement, pioneering a nationwide conversation about the importance of digital wellbeing for youth through educational resources and internationally recognized events like the Global Day of Unplugging. To date, #HalfTheStory has become a leading youth 501(c)3, receiving over 30,000 stories of youth relating to the cause from 99 countries around the world.
Larz has been featured in Time, Forbes, Refinery29, Good Morning America and more and is a recognized public speaker who has presented to corporations and institutions like Sundance Film Festival, Pinterest and Samsung, as well as top universities across the globe. Now based in San Francisco, Larz virtually travels for speaking engagements at schools and conferences across the United States.
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 believe the brightest ideas come from the darkest places. To make a long story short — I hit rock bottom in college as a fashion entrepreneur/blogger and realized the toll that technology was taking on my mental health. I had a lightbulb moment that social media was only half the story, and that there was an opportunity to create a more connected experience through authentic social storytelling. I didn’t want to be part of the problem, I wanted to fix it. My conclusion was that the systems were not in place for kids to develop healthy relationships with technology, so I decided to build it myself. I started #HalfTheStory with 250 dollars out of my college dorm room and now we’re a global non-profit that has reached millions of youth around the globe.
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.
Thank you :).
1. Sacrifice: I think very few people understand the sacrifice you make as a founder to bring something to life — emotional, physical, economic. For me, I have put everything on the line to make #HalfTheStory a reality. I’ve held several jobs and invested my own money to bring this to life. Not to mention almost 30,000 hours of volunteer time.
2. Humility: I never thought this would be an important aspect of leadership, but it is. Asking for help, speaking truthfully about where you are, and holding a vision at once is a tough balance to strike. Quite honestly, as a founder there is often a pressure or desire to present your vision as a “future state,” but sometimes it’s as simple as being honest and asking for what you need to get to the next level. I’ve learned this the hard way.
3. Perseverance: As a founder, each day is like walking through an obstacle course. You are faced with new challenges and have to be ready to fight for what you believe in, regardless of what comes your way. Giving up cannot be part of your vocabulary. A CAN DO attitude is critical. It’s the difference between an idea and a reality. The losses make the wins worth it.
What’s the most interesting discovery you’ve made since you started leading your organization?
Running a non-profit organization is like running a for-profit organization without the financial payout. You can still have revenue streams. That is a misconception about non-profits. The most successful ones have sustainable income streams outside of traditional fundraising activities.
Can you please tell our readers more about how you or your organization intends to make a significant social impact?
I would be honored! #HalfTheStory is a non-profit on a mission to help the next generation develop a healthy relationship with technology. This means working with creators, social platforms and schools to help set standards to empower our users and build a healthier ecosystem. We have three pillars at #HalfTheStory to achieve this: Research, Education, and Advocacy. Thanks to our partners next fall we are going to be able to roll out our 2.0 program Social Media U nationally. We are working with PhDs from institutions like Harvard and Vanderbilt to develop the next evolution of this program, specifically targeted at middle school and high school age groups. We’re also developing a tool with content that’s customized to help teens navigate specific areas of social media and provide quantitative reports on the state of youth emotional wellbeing to school districts.
What makes you feel passionate about this cause more than any other?
I believe that there is a future where we can coexist with technology in a healthy and positive way. There is not a brand or non-profit tackling this at the scale we need to in our society and I am up for the challenge. We will not stop fighting until we rewrite the rules for the next generation.
Without naming names, could you share a story about an individual who benefitted from your initiatives?
One of our first ambassadors back in 2016 reached out to #HalfTheStory. She had just lost her brother, who died by suicide. She lived in Bolivia where there was 1 psychologist per 100,000 people. She became an ambassador for #HalfTheStory and we worked with her to share her story and help locate resources in her area to share on social media so that she could utilize social media storytelling to empower other youth to get the support they need. This was illustrative of how the power of social storytelling could foster change in the real world. It’s a small but important example of how social media can be a powerful and positive tool.
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?
1. Get Real with YOUR PURPOSE and INTENTION on Social Media. It’s as simple as asking yourself WHY before opening your device. In fact it is the difference between healthy (active) and unhealthy (passive) technology use.
2. Define Your Digital Wellness Non-Negotiables: Screen-Free Bedroom, Screen-Free Weekends, Social Media Free Workdays…. The list goes on. Choose 1–2 habits that you can stick to and watch your relationship improve.
3. Model For The Next-Generation: If you are reading this, the best way that you can make an impact on the next generation is to examine your own relationship with technology and build a healthy relationship with it. Model the behavior you hope your children, family members, and students will adapt to.
Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Create A Successful & Effective Nonprofit That Leaves A Lasting Legacy”? Please share a story or example for each.
1. You are Only As Strong As Your Back-Up: Building a strong board is one of the most critical parts of a non-profit legacy. One of my greatest challenges as a non-profit leader has been recruiting an incredible board. Find people that can bring value to the organization, genuinely believe in the cause, and have a passion for the long-term vision. Set goals, hold people accountable, and cut what doesn’t work. A board is not a title, it is a true commitment.
2. Break the Mold: In the non-profit space, there are 100 ways to get to your operating budget. I am a non-traditional human, but I would say that you have to be incredibly innovative with your fundraising. #HalfTheStory started with 250 dollars and I had no idea what I was getting into from a fundraising perspective. Most of my background was in venture and CPG brands, and I quickly learned that non-profit was an entirely different beast. When I first started, I tried to follow the playbook for non-profits by applying for grants. For me, this was draining and I didn’t see the results. It led to burnout and frustration. I had to pivot quickly. As a natural marketer I leaned into building corporate relationships and experiences which led to partnerships and experiences with many brands. As soon as I leaned into my skill set, the money started to flow.
3. Diversify Your Donor Streams: Raising money for a non-profit organization is like a mutual fund. You need to have multiple donors, sources, brands, and supporters. Over the years, I have diversified my fundraising strategy to include events, personal donations (family foundations) and brand sponsorships. The trifecta is what leads to a sustainable path.
4. Test, Learn, and Move On: It is as simple as that. Don’t hold on to what doesn’t work. The best example of this was when #HalfTheStory was hosting virtual fundraisers. To be honest they created stress and were not as successful as I wished. I learned to pivot and instead shifted by encouraging enthusiasts to host their own personal fundraisers within their network which was much more effective.
5. Build A Brand People Care About: When I started #HalfTheStory, it began as an art project. I don’t think people emphasize the importance of brand building when it comes to the non-profit space. There is a lot of competition and it’s critical to master your unique POV in the market.
How has the pandemic changed your definition of success?
Like many, I experienced burnout during the pandemic. After looking hard in the mirror I have recognized that my mission cannot grow if I am not living the values of #HalfTheStory. My new mantra is to “grow slow.” Steadily, methodically, and ruthlessly prioritize. Speed comes with a cost ;).
How do you get inspired after an inevitable setback?
I look through old photos on my phone from 5–6 years ago and celebrate the progress we have made. Looking back at the progress you have made is the best way to find your way through the dark times. Obstacles are inevitable.
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. 🙂
How can our readers follow your progress online?
Overview Deck for #HalfTheStory: https://docsend.com/view/them8guvtz92wcq5
Thank you for a meaningful conversation. We wish you continued success with your mission.