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How to build a nonprofit organization from the ground up.

October 19, 2022

How #YesSheCanCampaign Founder Zaniya Lewis built a nonprofit organization from the ground up

Founder and Executive Director of #YesSheCanCampaign™, Zaniya Lewis doesn’t have a side hustle as a magician, despite what you may think.

Though the second-year Rutgers University Law School student has turned a $100 from her parents into a nonprofit organization that has helped students secure over $700,000 in funding for their education, it wasn’t magic that made it happen. Rather, it was years of relentless dedication to pursuing excellence, and a commitment to overcoming adversity and helping others do the same.

“As a Black woman in the U.S., I faced a lot of adversity, particularly when it came to my education,” she said. “Scholarship award displacement and a lack of funding for higher education were realities for me.”

But rather than just fight to secure her own opportunities, she decided to do so for youth around the country facing similar challenges.

Lewis did not come from a background with a well-connected network of investors and venture capitalists, nor did she have immediate access to mentors with experience in running a company. She was, however, brought up in a military family and was imbued with a passion for social justice and community service from a very early age.

“Nonprofits played a pretty big role in helping my family as I was growing up,” she said. “When I started college, I decided to minor in human services and social justice, which is where I learned more about how to manage a nonprofit and write grant proposals.”

To date, Lewis’ #YesSheCanCampaign that she began in 2016 at age 18 has helped over 3,000 students receive funding for their education and career readiness opportunities, and more. More recently, #YesSheCanCampaign launched its ed-tech program and platform, DISSCHOLARED™, which aims to raise awareness about scholarship award displacement.

Though she has appeared on the cover of – and as a contributing writer for – Seventeen Magazine with Former First Lady, Michelle Obama, Lewis began working toward achieving her mission with a small conference in a local library.

“My parents gave me $100 to reserve a space in a library to hold my first conference,” she said. “I always wanted my programs to be completely free to participants because I believe that opportunities should not come with a price tag.”

To ensure free services for all of the participants in the #YesSheCanCampaign, Lewis had to get creative with her fundraising strategy. “I asked my family and friends to help fund my cause at first,” she said. “I started selling merchandise on the #YesSheCanCampaign website to help raise more money.”

For anyone wanting to begin their own nonprofit organization, Lewis says that you really can’t go wrong with cold calling and emailing. “You never know what you will find or who will be interested in what you’re doing,” she said.  She also recommends leveraging your existing network in order to discover funding opportunities. “I always reach out to companies I’ve already worked with and universities I’ve attended,” she said. “They already invested in me and they know that I’m credible.” 

Lewis has ended up partnering with several national organizations to win awards and get sponsorships for the participants in her program. Most recently, she won the Goldman Sachs One Million Black Women Impact Grant. This is of course after having received sponsorships and grants from the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) and the Taco Bell Foundation – among other national and international recognitions.

Free online tools like Zeffy have also made an impact in #YesSheCanCampaign’s ability to continue the work it is doing. The organization formerly used GoFundMe to collect donations to fund its programs and website, however, the platform and transaction fees associated ended up taking too much from the Lewis’ mission. After switching to Zeffy, which charges zero fees to nonprofit organizations, #YesSheCanCampaign was quickly able to raise enough money to pay for its DISSCHOLARED website for an entire year. 

Despite being the Executive Director of a decorated youth-led nonprofit organization that has granted opportunities and resources to thousands of U.S. students facing adversity, Lewis knows that the work has only just begun.

“We are working for systemic change and long-lasting impact,” she said.“In our organization, everyone helps each other,” she said. “The climb is our story. If we all work together, we can climb higher and achieve our goals.”