It Takes A Team: How Free Wheelchair Mission's focus on infrastructure stimulates big growth

It Takes A Team: How Free Wheelchair Mission's focus on infrastructure stimulates big growth

January 25, 2022
30 minutes

Nuka Solomon · CEO, Free Wheelchair Mission | Nuka is a pro when it comes to nonprofit growth: as the CEO of Free Wheelchair Mission, she's taken the organization through the pandemic with flying colors by focusing on infrastructure.


As Nuka Solomon says, "Growth is an interesting word." She's right; depending on who's asking us—our board of directors, partners, or, heck, even a podcast host—we hold that concept of growth to the light and turn it to answer with the most beautiful kaleidoscope possible.

Nuka is a pro when it comes to nonprofit growth: as the CEO of Free Wheelchair Mission, she's taken the organization through the pandemic with flying colors, supporting expansion in finances, reach, and engagement. But she hasn't done it alone; Free Wheelchair Mission's team, from the board to boots on the ground, has a stake in achieving their ever-evolving mission.

Listen in as Nuka and Justin uncover how recent trends toward transparency, donor access and engagement, longevity of content, and deeper relationships have led to a paradigm shift in the way nonprofits define things like impact, growth, and investment.


Hello, I'm Justin Wheeler, and welcome to this episode of Nonstop Nonprofit!

As Nuka Solomon says, "Growth is an interesting word." She's right; depending on who's asking us—our board of directors, partners, or, heck, even a podcast host—we hold that concept of growth to the light and turn it to answer with the most beautiful kaleidoscope possible.

Nuka is a pro when it comes to nonprofit growth: as the CEO of Free Wheelchair Mission, she's taken the organization through the pandemic with flying colors, supporting expansion in finances, reach, and engagement. But she hasn't done it alone; Free Wheelchair Mission's team, from the board to boots on the ground, has a stake in achieving their ever-evolving mission.

Listen in as Nuka and I uncover how recent trends toward transparency, donor access and engagement, longevity of content, and deeper relationships have led to a paradigm shift in the way nonprofits define things like impact, growth, and investment.

Let's dive in!

Justin Wheeler Hey, listeners, welcome back to Nonstop Nonprofit. Today I am excited to be joined by the CEO of Free Wheelchair Mission Nuka Solomon. Nuka how are you today?

Nuka Solomon Thanks for having me. I'm doing great.

Justin Wheeler Thank you so much for coming on the podcast. Before we jump too much into the questions. Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got involved with Free Wheelchair Mission.

Nuka Solomon Well, thanks again for having me. I've been with Free Wheelchair Mission for nearly five years. I came on as an Executive Director and then moved into the CEO role. I was previously working in the nonprofit space, doing a lot of development, fundraising and operations work. And I was thinking at the time I was looking for a challenge, but I had the fortunate opportunity to be recruited to work for Free Wheelchair Mission at the right time in my life. I'm First-Generation American. My family's from Haiti, so I have a tugging at my heart, always for giving back to those in need. And Free Wheelchair Mission was an organization that had demonstrated to me in the recruiting process and I think for the many years that it had been in existence, that they were doing that kind of work in places like Haiti that were very much in need all over the globe. So it was an easy, easy, easy sell for me to work at Free Wheelchair Mission.

Justin Wheeler Yeah, that's amazing. You know, I always like to ask our guests like what was like the initial inspiration that got you involved in the nonprofit sector? I think, when I think about it, it's I think it's like one of the hardest sectors to work in. You know, it's one of also the most rewarding because you're making tremendous impact and you're literally changing the world. But you also are doing that with oftentimes your hands tied behind your back. And so what was the inspiration that drove you to dedicate your life to the nonprofit sector?

Nuka Solomon I think it started all the way back many years ago when I was in college. I actually worked in the nonprofit that was doing, it was a science museum on the border of Vermont and New Hampshire, and that's really where I cut my teeth in the nonprofit space. They were doing a lot of programming for children and families. But really, what I loved was the behind-the-scenes team that was working really, really hard to bring programming and events and different opportunities to people locally on that. Just that team spiritedness was something that really interested me to be a part of. And I learned a lot in terms of what it takes to wear many, many hats in this work. Everything from operations to fundraising to being front-facing with investors. And I think from there on, I always knew that I wanted to do something of that nature. It took many forms in my career, but I think that's how it all started. That kind of we could do it kind of attitude for the greater good of a mission.

Justin Wheeler Absolutely. And that's amazing. It's amazing. Thank you for sharing that. So, you know, one of the things that stood out when you and I first spoke, I think, was a month or so ago now, was just the rate at which Free Wheelchair Mission was growing. And especially, you know, through a global pandemic. And so I think like, you know, as we have a lot of listeners who our Executive Director, CEOs, running nonprofits of different sizes, what has been your priority over the last couple of years? Like where have you focused your time and efforts to help steer this ship, Free Wheelchair Mission, to new heights as you guys continue to grow?

Nuka Solomon Well, as I talked to a lot of our partners that helped to distribute our wheelchairs all over the world, and I'm sure a lot of other nonprofit leaders have experienced, COVID was the unknown, as is any major crisis or the pandemic was. You just don't know what to expect. And so for me, it was about maintaining, first and foremost, an infrastructure for our team, operationally. I often tell my team, you all come first. It's not to minimize the mission and the people we serve. But if our team isn't operating and able to have everything that they need in terms of resources, we can't do the work that we do in the field. So my job was to make sure that from a budgetary standpoint, we could maintain the organization no matter what happened with COVID. So that meant I had to make tough decisions initially in terms of budget for the sake of not knowing how the economy would hit us hard or maybe in the positive sense, in a good way. So we'd made those decisions. We tighten our belts initially, you know, we didn't want to cut staff. We didn't want to reduce our infrastructure for the sake of things turning around and then not having those things in place that we had invested in. And I think we made some good decisions early on that allowed for us to be able to maintain our team and also maintain our program. And we did reduce the number of wheelchairs that we distributed initially just as a precaution. But we were thankfully surprised by how much our donors rallied and they continued to give to us throughout the pandemic and really increase their visibility and engagement with us as best as possible, whether it be virtually or whatnot. Unfortunately, there have been some consequences as many nonprofits have experienced to the pandemic, like rising costs and supply chain issues that we have felt victim to like many others. But I think those early decisions to be cautious and wise and also to shift gears in terms of how we fundraise, how we speak to our supporters, allowed for us to maintain the mission.

Justin Wheeler Hmm. I love that, you know, talking to a lot of nonprofit leaders and some of the decisions that were made early on in the pandemic were very reactionary, where they end up cutting, you know, key positions and fundraisers and so forth out of fear that, you know, the economy was going to tank and people weren't going to give. But we always we saw quite the opposite happen actually in 2020 was in many ways, a record-breaking year for philanthropy. A lot of organizations grew through what was one of the most unknown periods in their nonprofit time. And so it's great to hear that, you know, your kind of approach was was was quite different. It was, you know, if we have to go back programs initially to ensure that the infrastructure we've built up over the past several years can remain intact because this is this will end and we will come out of it hopefully stronger and do more. And so it's great to hear sort of that approach because I think organizations who did that, who took that approach actually have survived the pandemic in very, with high growth stories.

Nuka Solomon Yeah, I completely agree. I think in this space, you know, we try to because we don't always have the resources to get the best advice, but just possible in a pro bono way. And I think that usually starts with a good, strong board of directors and we have that. They advised me and the team very early on in terms of those decisions. So we can, as a staff, take full credit. I have to say that our board was really, really great about advising and being supportive of some of those decisions. And it gave me the confidence that they were behind us and also were behind some of the decisions that we made early on. But yeah, I mean, I think it really helped us, and we were blessed to be able to say that the virtual events we had, the different types of engagements of that nature that we had actually were surprisingly shockingly so much more than we could have imagined even before the pandemic in terms of expanding the number of people that were hearing about us and viewing our events and participating in our mission.

Justin Wheeler Amazing. You know, I realized that we never really dug into what does Free Wheelchair Mission do, and I think the name suggests a lot of what you do. But let me take a moment here to share with our listeners what is the mission of Free Wheelchair Mission and what you guys are up to?

Nuka Solomon Just like you said, and I think that was, as I said, the huge selling point for me when I first learned about the organization is the name is very clearly describing what we do and that is to give out wheelchairs for free. That's our job and we try to do it because there are seventy-five million people, according to the World Health Organization, that need a wheelchair at any given time. The organization was founded by a biomedical engineer, Don Schoendorfer, who recognized the problem when he was on a trip many, many years ago, where he saw a woman dragging herself along the ground. And he tried to come up with a cost-effective solution, which was the invention of a specific type of wheelchair that could be provided en masse to people in need in the developing world. And 20 years later, this is our 20th anniversary year, we have done that and we have done it for 1.3, about, million people. And I'm very proud to say that with a team of only about 30 staff or so and some independent contractors that have been very dedicated to us, we give out the most wheelchairs in any given year comparative to other nonprofits. And we do that with like-minded partners in all these different countries who give out these wheelchairs that we get manufactured brand-new to people in need and we partner with them and train them. How to assemble the chairs, how to assess those that are receiving the chairs and really make sure that they're getting the chairs in a very safe, efficient way and hopefully will last a very long time.

Justin Wheeler That is a lot of impact. And in speaking of impact, it's a direct correlation I've seen from with high growing or fast-growing organizations is their ability to communicate the impact or their ability to communicate the funds that they're raising, how it's actually, you know, making it better and proof of the work. And this is something that your team does very well. It's very clearly evident just the impact that's being made and what you guys are up to. And so was this important early on for you? Has this always been a part of the culture? What's led to the success in this particular area for you guys and your team?

Nuka Solomon I think with every nonprofit there is some secret ingredients, I think, that cause you to be successful beyond the obvious thing that you need to raise funds to be able to do the mission. But I think transparency with your investors and I call investors anybody who's giving donations or investing their time in the organization, transparency about the need and transparency of how their investment is working. People want to know about the impact, right? And there's multiple ways that you can share that. One of the big things is we're very transparent about our finances. You know, we share our 990 and our finances are very openly on our website and always with our supporters that if ever asked, I think people need to know where the money's going and that the majority of the money is going to the mission. So transparency is one secret ingredient, I think. But another one is really sharing the impact in terms of being transparent about the results in terms of stories and really connecting people that are making that investment to the mission. And in our case, since we work all over the world, sometimes there could be a disconnect with the person who's volunteering their time or the person who's writing that check or donating via a website to the people that are in need. If they too have not experienced losing their mobility or don't live in a hut in a very arid or very wet region of the world, they may not really understand why it's so critical to give that thing like a wheelchair. And so sharing stories, sharing videos, sharing photography is very, very important to our mission. And I think for any nonprofit sharing those types of imagery and results and impact stories are what sustain the organization.

Justin Wheeler Amazing. You know what I think also it's closely tied to this transparency around the need and impact, is a leader's ability to really like ideate around goals and vision. And when we first spoke, you know, you shared some pretty audacious goals with me, which I got excited about. I love, I love big goals. I think they're motivating, especially when it's grounded in like strong execution or a game plan on how we're going to achieve X, Y and Z. And so as you think about creating goals and casting vision for your organization, what's the framework that you use or a process to ensure that you know, it's not just like lofty big ideas that have no follow-through, but actually, you know, it's actually driving the team each day to show up and give 100% of what they have that day. Anything to share around?

Nuka Solomon Yeah, it goes back to our board. I think they help to kind of push a little bit and encourage and to drive the biggest strategies and biggest goals in terms of long-term objectives. But honestly, you know, my leaders, the directors who lead the departments, are divisions of our organization or who keep me honest to realistic capacity level type goals, the capacity of the team to execute. I really believe that when you have a team, they need to be able to feel empowered and own the goals. You can't be fully top-down and they have to push back and share. You have to challenge and exercise some stretch goaling as well. But in our organization, we try to be, you know, a little top-down and a combination of flat. Where everybody has a stake. And we do that by looking at our fiscal year with a specific calendar and kind of figuring out every single year when we're going to draft our strategic priorities for the coming year, not just in terms of looking at budget and thinking about the numbers, but what are the action items that we're going to take from everything from, you know, how are we going to improve our professional development for the team or improve our phone system internally to how are we going to get higher dollars at the next fundraising event or get more wheelchairs out or improve our training program? And those things are done in a very organized fashion every single year. The team knows that on a specific month, we're going to have a brainstorming session with all of the directors sitting in a room and hashing it out and thinking about what works in the year before, what should be continued for the year after. What are the longer-term goals? And then after we kind of do all that and we dropped and think it through and, you know, we've gotten the sign off our board, we then empower everyone else in the team to kind of author what the action items are going to be day to day to execution for that fiscal year to come. And I think that kind of a process allows everybody to have a stake in it. It doesn't mean that we have 100% success in every single thing we write out, but at least we have kind of like, something like a blueprint for how we're going to build on on things for the year or the month to come. And we do check it. And, you know, I really encourage my leaders. To have one on one meetings with their teammates as frequently as possible. We do every other week, our team meets all together to talk about these types of things, maybe not organization-wide in terms of every topic, but we select a department to focus on in terms of what their progress is or what the latest information is. And then every six months, we do a more deep dove, which we're going to do this January on how we're doing to the goals. Where we spend an entire day of some organization kind of holding ourselves accountable. And we're doing that for the people that we serve right and the people that have invested in us.

Justin Wheeler Absolutely. Yeah, getting the team involved, you know, creating that buy-in, obviously is a very positive thing for a team to kind of rally behind. And, you know, we've talked about sort of transparency and we've talked about goal setting and so forth. And, you know, I want to kind of bring this back to sort of your guys' growth over the last several years. Are these things aspects that have lent to that growth? Or is there another catalyst that has helped you guys really grow over the last few years? It's something that we haven't discussed yet that would be helpful to kind of uncover.

Nuka Solomon Yeah. You know, I think growth is an interesting word. You know, it depends on what are you talking about, right? In our world we measure things by wheelchairs in some respects, but also like every nonprofit, it's in terms of dollars. Every year we've grown in terms of dollars, how much we've grown and the percentage we've grown is never enough as far as we're concerned, right? Because I said there are seventy-five million people that need a wheelchair at any given time, but sometimes that growth, when I say, isn't enough, it's because it's, you know, we have to contend with the variables that are beyond our control. And in our case right now with COVID, and you look at things like supply chain and inflation and other growing costs and challenges like shipping, those are things we couldn't have pre-planned for fully. So no matter what growth you have your bottom line, your PNL is going to be a little bit different than you anticipated. But longer-term, what I look at is what are we doing to keep the organization viable for whatever comes to pass. Another pandemic or some other major disaster. Or just if it's not that, just maintaining the organization steadily with the exponential heightening and one of the big things is looking at the segments of donors that give to us, right, making sure that we're attracting younger audience members to pay attention to Free Wheelchair Mission is something that I'm always nagging the team about, and our marketing director is really, really keen on. And that's important, right? You have a steady body of people that are giving to you today, but you have to think about 10 years, 20 years out. And what happens if they're giving changes? Those people pass away. You have to maintain a steady pipeline of interest and hopefully you're capturing people when they're young and they're eager and they haven't been overly solicited so that they stay with you for the long haul as they grow in terms of their profession and ability to give more philanthropically. That's just one example.

Justin Wheeler Yeah, that's a good point, too. You know, when when we talk about growth, there's definitely several different ways to kind of interpret that, whether it's like the top line, bottom of line or just looking at just direct impact, right? Because there's definitely opportunities in times, not during the season we're in with high inflation and specifically, you know, to your point, with supply chain issues for organizations who are reliant on that. But when you're looking at the ability to provide a product or service to someone at a lower cost and you can help more people that could also be, you know, another growth lever that you can look at like how do we decrease the margins or how do we get better margins on sort of the services and product that we're providing?

Nuka Solomon And I'm always challenging my team to do that. With us, with making a product, you know, we look at our wheelchairs, we're always doing that. Even when it seems like we're not in the background, we're saying, how can we make this wheelchair more cost-efficient, right? How can we, despite supply chain irrespective of that, how can we make sure it's more durable but more cost-effective? Meaning can we get cheaper raw materials, you know, but still maintain the quality? That's something that we have a responsibility to continue to do, no matter what the economy says. So that we could do more.

Justin Wheeler Totally. So two more questions here. The first being so there's a lot of conversation around, you know, how do you know when you've achieved your mission, right? And there's a school of people who think that eventually like your job should be to run your nonprofit out of business because you've achieved your mission? But when I think about wheelchairs and the population is not, you know, well, maybe in some places it is decreasing, but there's always people that are going to be needing wheelchairs. So how do you understand? Like when have we achieved our mission or is it not that black and white? Is it more much more fluid than that? How do you think about that as as a leader at the nonprofit?

Nuka Solomon That's. a very, very good question, especially with the number I gave you earlier, a seventy-five million number and our organization having reached 1.3M people, and I said to that we're giving out a lot of the most, potentially in any given year. You know, anybody who listens if I could say, well, gosh, we still have a lot more to go. And for me, you know what that looks like and what we tell people that looks like, it's getting to a point in any given time or a region or a country or an area can say that, OK, we're always going to need wheelchairs because there will always be people who have accidents or potentially get an amputation or just are aging, right? That's unavoidable fully to say that no one will ever need a wheelchair. But can we get to a point where we have a steady flow of wheelchairs that are coming in that at any given time that reach in that city, that rural area will always know that they can get one for that individual or for that clinic? I mean, that's possible. You know, we've seen it in certain parts of the world that we've been in, that there getting to a better place than others. And it's not just due to us, it's due to others. You know, and I always tell my team, it's not always popular to say this with my fundraisers, but we can't be arrogant and think that we're the only ones that are necessary out there in the mission and humanitarian world. We all need each other in terms of other nonprofits working together to solve things. So I think every nonprofit leader should take that approach with their supporters. That they should be thinking, OK, how can I partner with other like-minded people to solve this issue so that we all win in the end in demonstrating that the investment that's been made in us is actually working? Because I don't think that it's to what you were asking possible, a lot of times, to think that even as organizations, as big as we may get and as financially lucrative as we may get in terms of solving solutions, can do it on our own.

Justin Wheeler Right. Yeah, it seems like the organizations that have strong partnership models, especially in countries that they're operating in, specifically with partners that are local to those countries, that the impact goes much further and is more sustainable over time. So definitely agree with with that mentality. The last question is, I can't believe 2021 is gone. And as we approach 2022 to what are some of things that you're excited about new, whether it's new programs or new opportunities, anything that you can share around just what you're looking forward to here in 2022?

Nuka Solomon Oh gosh. OK. Some of them I can't say because they're kind of secret things that we're working on. But I will say we've got a few, or a couple, of donor engagement type of opportunities that are coming up that I think, are really going to push us to the next level in terms of attracting some of those audiences that we were speaking of. And I think of donor engagement as really critical for two reasons one, for retention and the second for growth. And you need both at any given time to have a strong fundraising program. So that's one. Our manufacturing team is doing phenomenal work that I think will. We also have some projects there that they're working on over the next couple of years that will surprise and excite our donor base and most importantly, the people that we serve. And then the third, I would say is, with COVID, as I mentioned earlier, we really had to shift gears in terms of virtual engagement, and we had this phenomenal, for many years, face-to-face event that we did in July that always generated well over one point something million dollars, it was our signature event. And then we had to do it all virtually and surprised ourselves and raised over $1.5M. And then last year, close to, you know, just shy of $1.8M and so I'm excited to see how now, while we're still in the pandemic, we are having more face-to-face engagement, right? And so we're looking to going back to doing as large of an in-person event, but yet maintaining the virtual component as well because that, just this past summer, we were able to engage over 100,000 individuals just virtually alone, which was not something we could have ever imagined doing with a solely in-person event. So I'm excited to see how those things converge. And also just seeing our team get back out there, you know, we've been kind of in lockdown mode and not traveling as much internationally and seeing our partners as much as we could outside of a Zoom screen. So it'll be really great to see them again face-to-face and get those impact stories ourselves and not just be solely reliant on them being emails or sent to us in a text message.

Justin Wheeler Absolutely. And something you touched on, I think is so important. I think is one of the biggest lessons nonprofits can learn as a result of COVID, and that's the, you know, this idea of of a more hybrid approach to fundraising. It's not like all or nothing or it's not one or the other, it's just the power of what a hybrid, you know, in your case and events can actually do. I mean, if you think about it and I sit on a board of an organization called Liberty in North Korea, and we have a signature event in Los Angeles and New York every year. And so much time and energy goes into creating these events, like the programming, the speakers, you know, just so much thoughtfulness and time and resources. And they were enjoyed for about two and a half hours out of the year. And what COVID showed us was that these things actually could live online and we could attract far more people. And it would also serve as a great opportunity for donors maybe who, you know, who couldn't come to these to these events because of where they're at, you know, geography wise and but still feel the impact and still feel very connected, you know, through the virtual kind of lens of it all. And so love to see that that's where you guys are going and headed into 2022. I think that this is definitely the future for fundraising in the nonprofit sector. It's more of a hybrid approach versus one-off single events and moving forward. So congratulations to your continued success. And Nuka, I appreciate the time you gave us here today on the podcast. We wish you and the team the best of luck in 2022.

Nuka Solomon Thanks so much, Justin. I had a great time.

Justin Wheeler Thanks.

Thanks for listening to this episode of Nonstop Nonprofit!

Thanks for listening to this episode of Nonstop Nonprofit!

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