IPMM Founder Evan La Ruffa On Shamelessly Doing What You Believe In
IPaintMyMind’s founder Evan La Ruffa is a renaissance kind of dude. He founded and runs IPMM, just got his MBA, is a dad, is about to launch a new mystery company, and somehow still finds time to practice his art. He was recently featured on Ross Palmer’s podcast Beat The Often Path, where he talks about the benefits of being a nonprofit, creating sustainable revenue streams to fund IPMM’s mission, and how most of actualizing a dream is taking small imperfect steps forward.
Ross’ podcast focuses on unconventional or surprising business ventures, interviewing founders and entrepreneurs about their stories and values. Check out Beat The Often Path here, and listen to the episode featuring Evan La Ruffa here. Read ahead for some of Evan La Ruffa’s thoughts on progress and constant creativity.
Mission Is The Engine…And The Rest Of The Car Too
Today, IPMM is a nonprofit with a uniquely effective model. We have created mutually beneficial and value-driven funding streams that allow us to fully fund and grow our education work. Our Art Rentals, Custom Murals, and Art Consulting programs allow us to support artists and schools, funding our arts programming. We’ve had great success developing this model, and it has allowed us unprecedented freedom in how we operate and what choices we make. We’re largely independent, operating at over 90% earned income. (Almost unheard of in the nonprofit world!)
We don’t have to waste time making desperate pleas for funding, or deal with the attached strings that so often come with large charitable donations. Evan says, “This means that we can ensure that our True North stays our True North.” Our decisions are driven purely by the evolving needs of the communities that we serve.
Evan notes that, “So many nonprofits don’t think about sustainable ways to fund their missions,” and in turn, dilute the efficacy of what they can do and what they can offer. Nonprofit teams often get caught up in the mission as being separate from how they can pursue it. We don’t separate different aspects of IPMM, instead integrating everything into our mission and what drives us. “It’s always about mission for us, because all of our work is connecting communities through art, whether through curating art for the adidas Originals Store or installing an art gallery at a CPS school on the Southside.”
The Hard Truth About Money and Nonprofits
Like it or not, money and funding is a super important arena for a nonprofit. It requires intention, financial competence, and lots of strategy testing. Evan explains, “A lot of us on the social left have a knowledge gap, we don’t understand business the way we should.” This isn’t an insurmountable problem, and folks like Evan are evidence of that! He’s worked hard on developing our funding model and making it work like it does today. This required a lot of learning, bringing good financial heads into IPMM, and even getting an MBA.
For a nonprofit, “Efficiency and impact for your dollar needs to be evaluated as critically as a top traded stock CEO is thinking about buybacks to get their numbers right.” There needs to be a renaissance in nonprofit money management, or the whole nonprofit sector will continue to flounder in the world of grant writing and groveling for large donations, unable to maximize their impact and services. IPMM’s model proves that thinking outside the box monetarily, and having a really cohesive, synthesized plan works. Evan sees IPMM and a few other nonprofits as great case studies for this innovation in nonprofits. “The nonprofit sector is totally redefining the future nature of good work.”
Go Nonprofit Instead of For-Profit with Social Spin
Evan believes that the recent trend of stylish social entrepreneurship is somewhat misguided. Companies like Tom’s and Bombas are cool One For One companies, but that sustainability in the sector doesn’t build that way, as it’s hard to replicate that kind of niche success. If there’s a mission-driven component to your business, he thinks that you should be a nonprofits. No if’s, and’s, or but’s about it. A mission-driven idea should alway prioritize values and impact over profit. The only way to really ensure this in practice is through becoming a nonprofit. If you’re resistant to the idea, ask yourself why.
The negative connotations around nonprofit status are really intimately connected to fear and shame around money. Folks are so afraid of losing out on comfort and profit, that they close themselves off to the idea of founding a nonprofit or turning an existing venture into a nonprofit. Evan says, “There is a huge myth and misconception about revenue generation in the nonprofit sector.” At IPaintMyMind, we’re still able to sell things, whether it’s our Art Rental Services or our B2C arts education downloadables. And, even as 501(c)3, IPMM pays its employees fairly for the work that they’re doing. You can survive and thrive working for or running a nonprofit.
Evan La Ruffa: Creativity Is An Everyday Practice
IPaintMyMind is all about connecting communities through art and encouraging the catalytic possibilities that art education can open up for kids. Evan says that his path in life was greatly determined by where he came from, “Where I come from is why I do the work that I do. My dad is from Argentina, my mom is from Kansas and they met in Spain, and later settled in Chicago. I like to think of myself as a cultural spy. I am a white Latino, who grew up in a house that spoke Spanish more than English. That upbringing put me in a bilingual school that centered art and activism. Being raised to embrace my cultural identity and learn about and value others’ identities made me an organizer and, later, a creative.”
Evan’s unique stance on creativity is a core part of what animates IPMM. The name IPaintMyMind comes from a John Frusciante song, part of a larger lyric that goes “I paint my mind just ’cause I’m alive | And if you see me roaming the hillside | Won’t you come along?” It’s a way to say that creating art is just an innate part of being alive. It’s an everyday practice. We love connecting communities through art because it is such a universal and can be a powerful way to bridge gaps and create change.
Small, Imperfect Steps Are Better Than No Steps At All
When asked how Evan got to where he is, he says it’s all about, “Being interested, driven, and shameless enough to try it.” For IPaintMyMind, and every other successful nonprofit or organization, the fully formed finished product didn’t just appear one day. IPMM is a series of small steps and decisions, many of which we got wrong and tweaked and came back to over and over. You have to be okay with making mistakes and changing direction, no matter what goals you have. “Delete and rewrite. Don’t get overly concerned about the little things,” Evan advises us. If you keep working at something everyday, and keep learning by doing, you’ll get better. You’ll develop a kind of muscle memory.
In the latter half of the podcast, Evan and Ross discussed the changing attitudes of folks towards work. Evan noted, “The social media way of living in the world means that we have more places to front. The fact that there is more real estate for our avatars means that it’s even scarier to go out and try stuff. Nothing is ever fully formed, and it’s a process. You have to be okay with publishing, shipping, or launching something that isn’t 100% cause the people you serve will tell you how to get there.” A lot of this pressure and fear, Ross and Evan decide, is due to the cultural compulsion that we all have to act like we know what’s going on all the time.
No one enters a space for the first time totally knowledgeable about it and proficient with the skills it requires. Everyone is making mistakes and learning, and the shame that sometimes hangs around this process needs to be disrupted. Success is a long road that is travelled slowly, evidenced by Evan and IPMM and every other guest on Beat The Often Path. Evan says that the most important thing for a young person to know is that you have to “Be willing to test and be wrong and not know what is right.” Testing is an integral part of IPMM to this day, and is a huge component of how we’re able to stay flexible and evolve to fit our community’s needs.
If you enjoyed Evan La Ruffa and his thoughts on nonprofits and achieving success, give his Beat The Often Path episode a listen. And if you liked this, we’d be willing to bet you’d appreciate other guests that have made appearances on Ross Palmer’s show. Give it a listen!
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