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Nonprofit Founder: Lindsay Avner
Well before Angelina Jolie made headlines with her own choice, Lindsay Avner, at the age of 23, became the youngest patient in the country to opt for a risk-reducing double mastectomy with reconstruction. After losing her grandmother and great-grandmother to breast cancer before she was born, and watching her mother fight both breast and ovarian cancer, she underwent genetic testing and learned that she carried a mutation in the BRCA1 gene — indicating she had up to an 87 percent lifetime risk of developing breast cancer and up to a 54 percent chance of developing ovarian cancer. That knowledge led to her decision to have surgery.
Building on her passion for the cause, her experience as a patient and her background in brand management, in 2007, Lindsay launched Bright Pink, an organization focusing on the prevention and early detection of breast and ovarian cancer in young women, and providing support for high-risk individuals.
JMA: Had you always planned to go into cause-based work?
LA: When I was in college, I was a psychology major studying liberal arts. I interned at Bath & Body Works’ corporate headquarters, and I loved it so much that I went back the next year. It was such an important moment for me to go back and almost begin a mini-career there. After college, I started my career at Unilever as an assistant brand manager. I had always been philanthropic, but I always felt it would live in my life as a side endeavor. I had these preconceived notions about nonprofits: They’re slow and it’s hard to get things done. I love change and moving fast.
Unilever was a beautiful opportunity for me. I learned that market research and branding are really about understanding your consumer, and I found that when you get to the heart of who she is, you know how to reach her. During my time there, I moved to the center of the wheel as a strategic influencer and was coordinating a lot of different people. It turned out to be the foundation for my career.
JMA: Why Bright Pink?
LA: After I had my double mastectomy, I realized there was a huge gap out there and an opportunity for women to talk about health, not cancer. I wanted to position Bright Pink as a lifestyle brand, urging healthy women to put prevention at the top of their lists — and now we have done that and so much more.
JMA: When did you decide to leave your full-time job and start Bright Pink?
LA: I was with Unilever for a total of three years and I started working on Bright Pink about a year and a half in. I was never going to quit my job and use my life savings. That felt so irresponsible to me. I wanted to create something and try it out. If it didn’t take, I was ready to move on from the idea. It was never my intention to start a national movement, which I believe Bright Pink is.
JMA: How did you manage that first year and a half while also working full time?
LA: It was me and volunteers — some people who felt strongly about the cause, but more people who felt strongly about supporting me. Working on the organization became an opportunity to bring people together who also loved the thrill of rolling up their sleeves and creating something. Carly, who still works with me today, remembers being an intern with me seven years ago and sitting at my kitchen table and writing our first Little Bright Book and conceiving of our PinkPal support program.
JMA: How did you know it was time to leave Unilever and run Bright Pink full time?
LA: There comes a point when you can’t do both things well, and doing things well in both places was very important to me. Everyone at Unilever was so supportive, which was totally unique and not what I expected. I felt very blessed to have that support. When I left, Bright Pink had $100,000 in the bank and that was really important to me. We grew and grew and now we have 13 full-time staff members, a $3 million annual budget and most importantly, we’re truly saving lives.
JMA: What do you love about your career?
LA: That’s the easiest question ever! It’s just knowing that the information that used to reach a couple of people now reaches hundreds of thousands. And, it’s not just the impact of increased awareness, but to see people taking action — that’s what it’s all about.
JMA: How do you think about Bright Pink as an organization?
LA: You can’t think about it in terms of nonprofit vs. corporation. There’s a danger that you could think, “We reached one person and that’s good.” And it is good, but that’s not how we look at it. When a nonprofit is done well, it has a lot of power. I really do believe the often-quoted sentiment that a small group of thoughtful people can change the world.
It’s surprising how archaic so many nonprofits are. But when you approach a nonprofit with the energy and mentality you’d bring to a startup, it’s amazing how easy it is to delight people.
JMA: What is the hardest thing about your career?
LA: The hardest thing is managing the infrastructure components and the process components; that can be exhausting. But, it’s fundamentally so important to be thoughtful and intentional about building a sustainable structure that you can replicate. It’s also about being really good at data. This is not the fun stuff, like marketing or branding, where I am naturally strong. The other tough thing can be getting others to feel the same when it comes to understanding: Why now? Why now and not five years from now? It’s hard to create that.
JMA: What does the best workday ever look like?
LA: I love that no day is the same. I love that I get to work externally — spending time in meetings with brands or speaking — and internally — meeting with my team or writing in my yoga pants. Shifting between those places in one single day can throw me. I love both, so a great day is when I am focused on one or the other. I love to develop and mentor people and I also know that without me out there amplifying the message and removing obstacles, we wouldn’t grow.
JMA: What’s the salary outlook for a nonprofit director?
LA: I am terribly unmotivated by money for myself. But in terms of potential, maybe $200,000? But that would be years and years from now. Could we all make more at a corporation? Yes. But you spend so many hours at work that you better enjoy it and know at the end of the day that the stress, emotion and hard days are for something bigger than yourself. I believe we have a responsibility to blow our team away in other ways. For example, we close for two weeks around Christmas and New Year’s and we have wellness hours. We’re always trying to live our mission. That’s super important; it’s the right thing to do for ourselves and for Bright Pink.
JMA: What’s the bottom line?
LA: You have to have your eye on the prize — starting a nonprofit is about facing rejection head-on. You have to see the momentum and feel it to keep going. In the early days of Bright Pink, we could see it taking off. If you are not getting traction, you may need to step back and rethink what you are doing.
Everyone decides they are going to change the world tomorrow, but life is really short. So don’t wait until tomorrow. Get in there — what are you waiting for?
Learn more about Bright Pink.
Images: John Reilly