Running a Non-Profit like a Business without Sacrificing Passion and Empathy for your Cause, with Unless Founder, Michelle Sequeira

Michelle Sequeira Massive Rocket

Non-profit organizations are often created by passionate people who want change the world around them. Non-profit work can be daunting, as it often involves working to solve fundamental human problems that have plagued our society for a long time. But as important as it is to believe in the work you do as a nonprofit and to hire people who are driven by passion and the desire to help, it’s just as crucial to understand that a nonprofit is a business and often requires just as much planning, attention to detail and business acumen as any other company.

Michelle Sequeira | Interview

Michelle was recently awarded Amnesty International Belgium’s Youth Human Rights Award for her work with Unless, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping the homeless population in Belgium. She talked to us about her perspective on the intricacies of founding a nonprofit and how she used both business acumen and passion to create this successful organization.

Tell me about you and your career?

I worked as an IT consultant straight out of university, having studied business management. After that I started my first job working for a big corporation at BNP Paribas in Belgium but I quickly found it was not the most exciting work in the world. So today, I’m an independent consultant working across a range of start-ups and have founded a charity called Unless.

How did you decide to start Unless? 

Commuting for work meant the Brussels North Station became a sort of second home to me. As I traveled through there day after day, it soon became clear that for some it had become their actual home. Over time, the homeless community around the station became familiar as I passed them every day, so I noticed one day when there was someone new. 

Initially, this gentleman was well-dressed and had a briefcase, but I could see his situation was deteriorating day-by-day. His appearance became increasingly disheveled, but it was his obvious drinking that was heartbreaking to see. The day finally came when he wasn’t there at all, and I couldn’t stop thinking about whether I could have intervened in some way, or done something to help. 

I realised that as a woman, it was dangerous to approach a stranger in a train station and that was what stopped me back then, so I researched associations that worked with the homeless. I volunteered with one of these associations for two years, distributing warm meals at the North Station. When this association ended the project due to lack of funding, I wasn’t quite ready to quit. I decided to create Unless to take over the food distributions and implemented a number of changes and improvements.

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What does Unless do? 

Unless is a nonprofit focused on helping homeless folks in Brussels. In June this year, we  will celebrate our 5th anniversary. We have 2 main programs:

  1. Food4Friends: We prepare and deliver warm meals to the homeless three times a week, and we’re able to reach about a 100-150 people each time. 
  2. SoFresh&SoClean: We realised that our homeless friends lacked the facilities to shower or wash their clothes, which has a huge impact on not only their hygiene but their state of mind. We’ve installed 2 showers and 2 washing machines in our offices so that twice a week people can come in to use our facilities.
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What were some of the biggest lessons you learnt while setting up your charity? 

We really want to go beyond helping the homeless community with more than food and hygiene; a lot of our efforts center around reaching out and creating valuable connections through simple acts of kindness. We realise that the first step is to fulfil the physiological needs of food, water, warmth and rest. Think: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. We have to ensure we are providing the basics before anyone can do more for them.

I think it is important for other social entrepreneurs out there to understand that regardless of the fact that you’re operating a charity and not a profit-focused business, you still need a solid plan, budget, structure and process. I started by making a business plan – I needed to be sure my vision was actually possible! How much funding would I need? How would I make it work long-term? At the end of the day, you need money in the bank to start any project and you’ve got to make sure the money gets allocated in the most optimal way to achieve your goals.

The key to a successful social organisation is a passionate team. As with any business, you and your team will face obstacles or hard times and you really do need a great group of people behind you to push through them. When others start telling you what you’re doing is impossible or unsustainable, it’s your team who will remind you of your mission and give you the strength to get through it all.

Finally, seek out authenticity. You need to make sure whoever you take onto the team really does believe in your shared goals and isn’t joining for the sake of it. You have to screen people, keeping in mind that the wrong people can actually slow down your efforts. Look for integrity and prioritise it at all times.

How can people build better charities in the future?  

When you take a step back and think about it, an ideal world is a world without the need for charities. In my opinion, an organisation like ours should not have to exist. So that’s the driving motivation: work so hard that those you’re helping don’t need you anymore. Some more tangible pointers would be:

  1. Do your research: Get online and look through the wealth of resources out there. Involve your local authorities and talk to them to get an understanding of how services work in your community, where you can get funding and what constraints you’ll be working with. 
  2. Go into the field: Join an existing charity first and learn by doing. This will be first-hand knowledge of the day-to-day challenges you might encounter doing that type of work. More importantly, this will help you figure out what you’re truly passionate about. 
  3. Understand the people you serve: You cannot help with someone else’s problems without an understanding of who they are, their circumstances and what they need from their community. Without this information, you’re starting at a disadvantage and could do more harm than good by assuming you know what’s best for someone else. 
  4. Create a plan: An overall plan and defined goals give you a bird’s eye view of your project at all times and you can reference it as you go and make decisions based on whether they fall in line with your overarching strategy or not. 
  5. Adapt: No plan is ever perfect and you’ll learn quickly that success is all about adapting as circumstances change.

I also think it’s really important to maintain an broader perspective on the work you’re doing. It’s easy to get siloed in the incredible hustle that is getting a charity off the ground and lose sight of the needs of those you seek to serve. Finally, and I can’t stress this enough, you need to make sure that you take care of yourself. It’s hard to help others if you’re not well, whether that’s mentally or physically – so this is crucial. 

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What does the future hold for Unless? How can people help?

The pandemic has severely impacted our funding, but it’s affected the homeless community even more. We can’t shut our doors and stop now, we absolutely need to continue our work and provide whatever support we can. Any funds raised are, of course, greatly appreciated. Our current fundraising goal is to get 500 donors giving 10 Euros a month – this will allow us to have the recurring income we need to support our current activities.

If you would like to donate: Unless ASBL – IBAN: BE79 0689 0578 6633 or via Paypal.

If you have any further questions: