With a background in healthcare, strategic leadership, public policy, and foster care advocacy, Jennifer Fell co-founded Fostering the Community to help reshape the community’s approach to foster care. MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price spoke with Jennifer about launching a non-profit mission-based startup and working with authenticity.
NAN PRICE: How have you been able to take your career experience and shift into this new role?
JENNIFER FELL: The work I did in healthcare had a lot to do with performance and quality improvement, the types of things that are innate in healthcare. After I’d been a foster parent for about a year and a half, I was able to step back and recognize some policies in place could be adjusted to impact children in a more powerful way and make a better difference.
Right before the pandemic lockdown, I reached out to State Representative Kerry Wood. A group of foster parents met with her to share our ideas about what needed to change in foster care. Representative Wood got us a seat at the table with the Connecticut Department of Children and Families (DCF) with some of the decision makers who were really interested in what we had to say.
Our group had quite a few meetings with DCF. As we were going through that process, I looked at my fellow foster parents and thought: We really need to formalize and have a name for who we are so we can come to the table as not just as a bunch of parents with ideas, but as an organization that can formally push our ideas forward. We also realized some things would be easier to do on our own as an organization, instead of having the state manage them. So, in July 2020, we created Fostering the Community as a nonprofit organization.
NAN: Tell us about the process of creating a nonprofit. Did you have any startup experience?
JENNIFER: I’d always worked for big corporations and I’ve been involved with business startups for new accounts. So, I had that background, which has really helped. Starting a nonprofit is very different from those experiences, though. I don’t have internal departments to help set up my finances and that kind of thing. With the legal piece, there are a lot of great resources like LegalZoom, which we used to help file our initial paperwork.
A lot of the process has been pulling from my background and starting one piece at a time. Whether it’s getting the finances set up or opening our online store where we sell our merchandise.
One thing that’s helped a lot has been using interns from the local colleges. They have a wealth of knowledge and they’re eager to help support nonprofits. We bring them in for things like web design and social media. They love having a way to apply their talents.
It’s been great to provide these internship opportunities, giving them an experience where they can work for something they care about, too. And it’s a startup, so they’re really part of something that’s making a difference.
NAN: You’re providing them with an authentic connection to something. It sounds like that’s important to you as well.
JENNIFER: Definitely. I think that connection can sometimes get lost when you’re working without seeing the impact or leading in a way that doesn’t necessarily align with who you are as an individual. In nonprofit work and by owning your own business, you’re able to say: If that doesn’t matter to us or if that’s not who we are, we’re not going to do it.
I always tell our interns: You should be in a job where you care about what you’re doing. And you deserve respect in your job. Your time should be valued.
NAN: What a gift to model that leadership to a young person into a new work opportunity.
JENNIFER: I hope so. I wish somebody had done that for me. It’s nice to be able to kind of filter your experience, take out all the junk that didn’t work, and provide others with things that may serve them later in life. I think that’s really fun.
NAN: Tell us about the impact your nonprofit has on the community.
JENNIFER: We’re trying to ensure people understand that foster care matters to everyone. Because this is about stronger communities. This is about helping people from going over that edge to where they end up with their children in foster care. It’s not just something you do because you have an elevated mission in life that you’re going to save a child or teen. No, that’s not what it’s about.
It’s about us connecting together and making stronger communities. That’s why we provide community education. And, that’s where we’re trying to work with global businesses to help raise awareness instead of just doing an ad campaign, because it really does matter to all of us. That’s something we’re always trying to drive home.
NAN: Any advice you’d give to others who are starting a nonprofit?
JENNIFER: My biggest piece of advice is don’t be afraid to dream. I think we so often cut ourselves off by not dreaming big enough or being afraid to hope or being afraid to fail. That sometimes stops us from making big moves.
One of the things I’ve learned is when you have authenticity and you connect to your mission, other people connect to it, too. The doors open because people want to help and they want to support you. And then it’s easy to keep moving things forward. It’s still hard work, but it happens more naturally.