When I first attended the STAN conference a few years ago, it felt a bit strange to be among representatives of large STEM organisations in Canada. After all, Discover the Universe only employed one person — me! and even then I was only working part-time. I heard from people who run organisations with many employees and with budgets that were significantly larger than mine. While it was a bit intimidating at first, I came to realize I wasn’t the only one in this situation. There were many other small organisations across Canada offering programs on a smaller scale but whose impact on the community was undeniable.
There are many challenges to running a small organisation. With a very small number of employees, or even just one, our duties are quite varied and we have to become experts in many different aspects of the job. Creating and presenting the content of my educational program is actually the easy part for me. I know the field (astronomy) and I love thinking about the best way to explain a concept in fun and easy ways to understand. This is the core of my program and I wish I could do this part of my job all the time, but the reality is quite different.
First of all, most of us need to ensure we can maintain our jobs through fundraising. Over the years, I’ve become better at writing grant proposals, but there is definitely a learning curve. When the survival of your program, as well as your job depends on it, it can be a stressful process. While some passionate people are running small outreach and education programs across Canada, dedication isn’t always enough. A failed grant proposal can easily result in organisations closing their doors permanently.
A large portion of my time is spent on different administrative duties such as managing the budget, coordinating with stakeholders, volunteers, and partners, as well as project management. Communication has also become quite time-consuming. I want my target audience to learn about what I offer — how do I best reach them? Managing a website, posting on social media, writing newsletters: these are often done by a dedicated person (or team) in larger organisations and make large demands on time for a single employee organisation. Not to mention that it takes twice as long to run bilingual programs, and have to do everything in both languages!
Over the years, I’ve come to realize I’m not a salesperson, and marketing isn’t my strength. As long as my program remains small, I’ll need to do everything. So I accept the challenges and strive to become better. Experience helps, but we sometimes need an extra hand. For me, online training and tutorials have helped me in areas I found most difficult. (And I’m excited to tease the fact that STAN will be bringing you some of these tools in the future!)
After many years of working alone, I’ve come to realize that being a one-person organisation also has advantages. It provides an opportunity to connect more with the participants in my program: the person they see delivering the content is also the one who will respond to all their emails or phone calls. I also don’t have to deal with many committees or meetings, so things move ahead quickly. Plus, there’s the wonderful feeling of accomplishment when your program finally grows and gains recognition.
Running a small organisation can be a challenge but it’s a worthy one. It pushes us to our limits and forces us to become better in areas we’re less comfortable with. Small STEM programs are having an impact in communities across Canada and I salute everyone behind them.