Written by: Rowan Vansleve

For the past seven years, I have served as the CFO & President of Hope the Mission. On a number of occasions, we have faced a gap. A gap between the amount of money we have and what is needed for our next project. It is in these moments where I discovered that if you run, people will give. When we faced a $40,000 gap to open a transitional age youth shelter, we ran a marathon (26 miles) to close that gap. When we were $200,000 short to open six tiny home villages, we ran 125 miles. When we were faced with a $250,000 deficit to open the 107-bed Trebek Shelter, we trekked 250 miles from Death Valley to Los Angeles. Running those miles paid off–as we were able to close the financial gaps thanks to the awareness created by the charity run campaigns. 

Last February, we faced our biggest gap so far, $350,0000, to open three family shelters in Los Angeles. I know the model works: run miles and ask for sponsorships. Sadly, this strategy requires the size of the fundraising needed to be matched by outrageousness of the miles and terrain.  

Now keep in mind, I am not a runner or a natural athlete, Despite our better judgment and lack of athletic prowess–Ken Craft (Founder and CEO) and I hatched a plan. We would run 350 miles from Las Vegas to Los Angeles in order to raise $350,000 for the shelters. The miles and fundraising goal had a ring to it. Sadly, the only route back was through the Mojave Preserve and along Route 66, which would add to the marketing but destroy me physically, which would also add to the marketing.  

We began our charity run by bungee jumping off the Strat Hotel– just more publicity to make this fundraiser stick. In the early hours of a Friday morning, with local news cameras focused on two delusional joggers, we started our journey home. Over the coming days, we were faced with some of the worst weather Southern California has seen in years as the California drought broke in a series of rain, snow and wind storms.  

Between the miles, I learned some leadership lessons that only come when one is alone with their thoughts to accompany them.  

Sometimes you have to do crazy things to set yourself apart and cut through the noise.  

Running from Las Vegas to Los Angeles isn’t the first time we’ve done a fundraiser like this. Hope the Mission is known for out-of-the-box marketing and fundraising campaigns. From running marathons, to spending 100 hours living on the street of Los Angeles, to living 100 hours in a car, we think of creative ways to bring awareness to tough issues. These projects are not enjoyable or a way to steal the limelight–we do them because they cut through the noise. We live and work in an incredible city with thousands of voices trying to share their message. While homelessness is at the front of everyone’s minds in Los Angeles, people are tuning out the countless organizations asking for help. 

In order to not only catch the attention of the media and donors, we need to be different. I believe our work with the unhoused is incredible and life changing, but people can’t support what they don’t know about. So, we did something different and wild to capture the public’s attention, and raised $350,000.00 and were interviewed by major stations (ABC, NBC, Fox, Telemundo) in Las Vegas & Los Angeles.  

LESSON: Be different to cut through the noise.

Forget the naysayers.  

For all the positive attention on our campaigns–we also receive some negative feedback. And unfortunately, the negative voices are always the loudest. One naysayer commented on my social media, that our run was “dumb,” that we aren’t changing anything. Well, he was correct in some regard, our run was dumb. All 350 miles of it felt dumb, painful, and pointless. However, we raised over $350,000 and opened three new homeless shelters for families and caught the attention of donors and the media to amplify our story.  

There will always be those telling you that you are not changing anything, that you are not good enough, but leadership is about venturing into the unknown. Don’t allow negativity to limit your vision or your voice. 

LESSON: Don’t allow other people’s negativity to limit your leadership.

Power through adversity–but take time to enjoy the highlights.  

As I said, I’m not a runner but I do know what a runner’s high feels like. When we set off along the Las Vegas strip, we were surrounded by people who cheered us on. It was easy to feel good about the run then. We had support and every hour we were receiving calls back at our headquarters with people making donations. That runner’s high quickly wore off when we left the crowds and were left to the sound of our own thoughts to cheer us on. It got really, really lonely when we entered the Mojave Desert and it started to snow.  

The run was no longer a new or exciting thing. It was a job–a tough job. My knees ached and my feet began to swell. It is in these lonely and painful moments that we live out leadership. Leaders must power through the hard moments and savor the good. There were about 330 miles between the cheering crowds on Las Vegas Blvd and the crowd waiting at the finish line.   

LESSON: Hang in there and enjoy the victories.

Two Caucasian Men smiling in front of the Bellagio in Las Vegas wearing running clothes

The environment doesn’t always determine success–but it does define your strategy.  

The first two days of the run were a breeze, mostly because we had the wind at our backs. We were also receiving regular donations, TV cameras were rolling and there was an energy with us. On the third day, the wind changed direction, wave after wave of rain & snow storms hit us, and donations all but stopped. The environment had changed; we knew the fundraising campaign would work, but now it was going to be harder. We changed our strategy. We ran longer each day as the wind slowed us down, took blankets to wrap ourselves when we stopped in the snow to refuel, and we shared our honest struggle on social media. The environment changed but It didn’t stop us from reaching our goal; it just enabled us to be nimble and rework our strategy so we could eventually be successful. 

LESSON: Leaders have to change course to beat the head winds

The charity run ended on Friday, March 24 at our headquarters in North Hills, California. The naysayers were right, this was a dumb idea but one that turned into an incredible success. We reached our goal and now there are 724 new Family Shelter beds in Los Angeles. 

I learned these lessons while running, but they’re applicable to my daily work at Hope the Mission. During hard moments, I remind my team that solving the homelessness crisis in Los Angeles isn’t a race–it’s a slow-moving journey with numerous obstacles along our path. We face a humanitarian crisis in Los Angeles, and we need leaders now more than ever to direct this mission. These lessons aren’t meant to be a catch-all answer to the issues we face as leaders, rather, think of them as the start of a robust workout playlist. They’re here to get you started on your warm-up, but it’s up to you to fill out the rest with the songs that work best for you and your team as we continue our critical work.  

I am hopeful the lessons I learned on this charity run, and continue to learn throughout my ongoing leadership journey, will inspire and support other leaders in this fight.   

Meet the Author:

Rowan Vansleve dressed in a black professional button down standing at a wooden podium speaking and addressing a crowdRowan Vansleve, President, Hope the Mission

Rowan currently serves as the President of Hope the Mission, he first worked for Hope in 2010. He leads the day to day operations of the Mission and its long term strategic vision. He is responsible for the Mission’s financial stability, personnel, communications, fundraising, media engagement and community awareness. During his time at Hope, he has filled a number of roles including Interim Chief Program Officer, Chief Development Officer and Chief Financial Officer. Rowan is considered a thought leader in homeless services and is often sought after as a speaker or for media comment. 




Get nonprofit tips and tools delivered right to your inbox by joining The Nonprofit Leadership Alliance Newsletter. Our bimonthly newsletter will make sure you know what’s happening with our network of social sector leaders.