News and analysis
November 13, 2015

A Standout Millennial Nonprofit Leader on Lessons for Her Generation

Jena Lee Nardella worked with the Christian rock group Jars of Clay to start the nonprofit Blood: Water, which has built 1,000 wells in African communities hard hit by HIV.
Jena Lee Nardella has lived a millennial do-gooder’s dream. In 2004, while a senior in college, she started a nonprofit with a rock band, the Grammy-winning Christian group Jars of Clay. Together, they set out to build 1,000 wells and bring clean water to African communities hit hard by HIV infections. Their first revenue stream: donations collected in popcorn buckets at the band’s concerts.

Today, the Nashville-based Blood: Water is a $3.5-million organization that has partnered with sub-Saharan African communities and organizations to help more than a million people. In 2012, Michelle Obama asked Ms. Nardella to deliver the closing benediction on the first day of the Democratic National Convention.

In her new book, One Thousand Wells: How an Audacious Goal Taught Me to Love the World Instead of Save It, Ms. Nardella talks about the joys of the work but also the setbacks that tempered her dreams. She recently changed roles at Blood: Water, moving to its board, and began working with young nonprofit leaders at Praxis, a training and resource group for faith-based social entrepreneurs.

In a conversation with The Chronicle, she talked about her learning curve, the growth in Africa’s nonprofit culture, and the next generation of nonprofit leaders. Her remarks have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Starting a nonprofit as a twenty-something

There’s so much passion and idealism that can drive you forward. And there’s a healthy hubris, a belief that you can actually do it. And sometimes there’s a naïveté in that belief you can do it. In a lot of ways, that’s how ideas get launched in the world.

If I knew before I started everything that would be required, I might have talked myself out of it. Youthfulness is a great asset, but it can also be a great liability if you don’t also have the wherewithal to understand nonprofit fundamentals. There’s a lot required in order to be accountable for stewarding donor money. That was an eye-opener for me; I just thought we could all be motivated by good intentions. I didn’t understand the need for so much accountability. I just wished that people would trust me.


Millennials starting nonprofits

Blood: Water was certainly on the front end of this flood of boutique nonprofits that showed up in the early 2000s, particularly in the faith-based world. There were already big organizations like World Vision and Compassion International, but for many of the millennials, it was, "I want it to be mine." We wanted our own nonprofits, but some of that was we wanted our own brand and identity.

It’s been interesting to see over the last 10 years how those groups have worked or not worked, and how some of them may have splintered giving. It’s also interesting to think about how much it reflects our need for self-actualization versus ensuring that we’re all working together.

Her first fundraising efforts

I was terrified. Some of my scariest experiences were sitting in the waiting room of a foundation or a businessman’s office. All I could think about was the hundreds of questions that I didn’t have an answer to; I thought if there was one question I couldn’t answer, it would be game over. I showed that insecurity in those first meetings. It felt a little bit like going into the principal’s office.

Her evolved view of fundraising

It’s so much more about the relationship with the donor over time. You don’t want to sit across the table from someone the first time you meet them and pitch them. That’s like making a proposal on your first date.

That person across the table is just as passionate and caring as the kid doing the lemonade stand. We all want to have impact. When we find people who have similar passions in the world, that should bind you more than separate you.

The growth of indigenous nonprofits in Africa

You see this landscape of emergent leaders who know their communities best and are doing great work. There’s so much opportunity to partner at the grassroots to provide support and augment the social-service work that’s already happening around sub-Saharan Africa.

Some of the larger NGOs have been coming to us with questions about how you engage at the grassroots. They’re beginning to understand that the closer you are to communities themselves, the more sustainable the work can be. I see a shift happening where there’s a real interest in partnering with African leaders and allowing them to be on the front lines.

The young nonprofit leaders at Praxis

There’s a moral seriousness about these leaders that may be a little different from 10 years ago. There’s a humility to their approaches; they want to learn from the generation that has gone before them. It’s amazing to see: These leaders come up with such phenomenal questions that aren’t just about "How do I set up a fundraising plan?" but more about "How do I ensure that what I’m building today can be lasting?"

Next for Blood: Water

In the pockets of Africa where we are, we’re working toward zero — zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination, and zero new babies born with HIV. It’s really exciting, because the global AIDS conversation, which started 40 years ago, is now about the end of AIDS. It’s remarkable.

Send an email to Drew Lindsay.