Helping Nonprofits Communicate

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What I Learned From Survivor’s Rupert Boneham

Last week I was able to attend the Fall Forum in Thomasville hosted by Southern Center for Nonprofit’s Excellence (SCeNE).  I have so many tidbits to share with you over the next few weeks.  First, I want to share with you what I learned from Survivor’s Rupbert Boneham.  I know, you’re thinking – what does he have to do with my nonprofit? What could I learn from him?  I thought the same thing.

Did you know he started a nonprofit in 1991 years before Survivor? His nonprofit wasn’t born of celebrity, it was well in existence before he soared to national fame. He saw youth 14-22 in downtown Indianapolis being arrested, thrown in juvenile detention and continuing on a path living an illegal life.  He felt they weren’t getting a second chance.  “A felony makes it hard for you to ever live a legal life. It’s hard to get a job, hard to convince people to trust you.  So, that’s what I did.  I trusted them and gave them skills.”

He started with a group of teenagers who looked just as gruff as him, knocking on doors and offering to remodel kitchens, bathrooms, and other construction jobs.  “We’d offer to do it for $1,000 less but ask that we take 3-4 days longer.”  Initially he found resistance but after the customers realized they did a good job, word of mouth spread and they had jobs all around town.  He would then use that opportunity to teach the teenagers how to do these jobs correctly, learning the trade.  They would take out the kitchen cupboards, toilets, and other appliances they were replacing, cover them, clean them up and then install them in a HUD home purchased for hundreds of dollars in a run down area of town.  He would then teach the teens how to remodel a home.  When that was done they would sell it, all the profits going to the nonprofit.

His model is self-sustaining.  Not only does it provide capital (like Betsy wrote about in How to Carry Out Your Mission & Make Money) it provides the teens with invaluable work experience.  When they are done with his program they leave with a marketable skill.  They can own their own business or go to work for someone and legally provide for their family.  Rupert pays his teens for the work they do, he feels strongly if you are going to teach them to work you need to teach them how employment works “I expect them to be there on time, I expect them to act respectfully and do their jobs well.  He wants to instill self worth in teens.  He feels strongly about not “handing out help” that expecting work or service in return is the only way to help someone feel they are of worth and empower them.  A way to reinforce that is to pay them what they are worth – “because they ARE worth it.”





One of my favorite stories was one he shared from Survivor.  When he had gone 5 days without food he was beyond desperate for anything to eat.  He saw a slug.  He wiped the slime off on his shirt, bit into it, gagged, but then willed himself to swallow.  “Then a crazy thing happened – my body said “woah, what is this?” Suddenly I was stronger.  I want MORE.”  He spend the next hour or more looking and eating anything that moved.  He gathered up a huge amount and took it back to his team.  Most of them refused to eat it.  “You can provide help but you can’t force people to help themselves. It’s all about self-empowerment, believing you’re worth that slug… you’re worth feeling good.  That’s what I try to teach these kids.”

Lori with Rupert Boneham, Survivor winner & founder of Rupert’s Kids

To this day, Rupert’s Kids is not funded by the government but by hard-work, corporate sponsors and private donations. It was a fascinating story.  I wish he would’ve had more time to speak, I could have listened to his stories all day long!


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