A Founder’s Dilemma

Recently, a friend recommended that I read St. Theresa of Avila’s Book of The Foundations. I’m ashamed to have discovered it so late. Whether you consider yourself a founder of a family, a business, or an apostolate, you could benefit from this book. I see a saint who wholly subordinated her choleric temperament, stubbornness, and sheer drive to the will of God. Only in that, the great undertakings she dared were blessed and grew. And even when they failed, they bore fruit.

As I see the world my kids will inherit crumbling before us, all I see is a problem of education. So much damage was done in my parents’ generation. I don’t want to die knowing I could have done more. Civilization stands or falls on education. Can it really work? I knew that if AMI was going to flourish, it had to be done very differently. Besides the published branding collateral you’ve seen a lot of, there are a few hidden steps we decided on early in the endeavor. 

Step one. Assemble a great team and get out of the way. Over the years, I’ve seen up close and personal how organizations founded on one personality were almost always setting themselves up for stunted growth or failure. If AMI was to succeed, bear fruit, and last, it would have to be because of the worthiness of the mission, not because of any singular personality. For that reason you don’t get daily emails from me (or emails authored by our staff in my name). The faculty, the schools we promote, and the fellows we serve, had to be center stage. I love co-hosting the podcast, but that’s about the extent of my regular visibility. Even as an institution, AMI was founded to be like St. John the Baptist in a sense, and point beyond itself to things that are actually important: great texts, great schools, great minds, great students. 

Step two. I don’t get paid. Subjecting the resources of the institute to the needs of my family would be untenable for both. For that reason, I’ve never taken a salary, or a directors fee from AMI. The same can be said for every board member. This helps us to purify our intentions and allows us to serve the institute as a labor of love. We are able to ask for your financial support in good conscience, because we know it simply goes directly to the good work of AMI. That provides us with the freedom to serve the mission donatively.

It also presents challenges for AMI, as it requires me to have a day job. My time spent at AMI is extremely limited every week. I wish I had more, but I am grateful for the remarkable staff of just two (Larissa and Eva) who are able to do the daily work at hand.  I do not disparage the founders of any good apostolate for taking a salary from their institutions; afterall, the laborer deserves his pay. This is the norm. But I am perhaps overly sensitive to the idea of a non-profit becoming a piggy bank for its leadership. If I am blessed to be able to give freely to this good work, I will. If I ever need the job, I’ll let you know. That said, AMI very much deserves a full time executive director who can run the day to day. We would like to hire one soon. If you know anybody, please send him or her our way. 

Step three. It’s ok to fail. AMI would need to grow no faster than the pace allowed by God and His providence. This has been a truly bootstrapped operation from the beginning. Since launching the Fellowship just three years ago, I could never have imagined that with our very limited resources and scrappy team, that we would now be nearing 1,000 students, 100,000 podcast downloads, and be a second home for (what is in my opinion) the most impressive faculty in the English speaking world. For that reason, it was always acceptable (to us) if AMI failed. And while it might be a non-profit faux pas to admit it, we still can. When you see our upcoming 990, you’ll see how poor we are. There is real freedom in poverty. We don’t know how many courses we can offer in a given quarter because we are raising money in real-time, “paycheck to paycheck” so to speak.

If you are already giving to AMI, you are really making all the difference in the world to us. When I see a donation come in, you have my sincere thanks and admiration the moment you click “give now”. It warms our hearts. We celebrate on the staff text thread. You are never an anonymous line on a quarterly spreadsheet to me. We have begged, and you have given. 

So, step four is really up to you. While we don’t know where our next meal is coming from as a foundation, we know that our Fellows and Faculty are eager for more and more offerings from AMI. What I can promise you is that if we hit our goal of $100,000 with this sole annual campaign, that we will be able to do more. So let’s see if it’s meant to be. We are only 25% of the way there now. I am admittedly nervous. We know those of you who have the means to give have many worthy options for your gift. There are so many good missions worthy of your support. We are just one. And I ask that you not forget AMI and the work we do in your prayer and financial support.

This note turned out to be more of a journal entry than the fundraising campaign letter Eva asked me to write. Apologies for that, but thank you for reading. It’s from the heart. Be assured of our gratitude and prayers for you. 

Merry Christmas to you all,

In the Beloved, 
John Johnson 
Executive Director of AMI

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