10 Years in Review
Holly here. I’m 10 months into an internship with an organization that’s been serving the nonprofit community for a decade. An organization that believes nonprofits have the power to change the world. But beliefs don’t just happen. They start somewhere and I wanted to learn more about this one.
So, on a chilly February morning just three weeks shy of Angel Oak Creative’s 10-year anniversary, I sat down with Caitlin and took her all the way back to 2012 when she started the company. Here’s what I learned…
The start of a vision
Caitlin said she didn’t really know what she was starting. But the Lord knew all along.
After graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2006, Caitlin began her marketing career in the agency world. Fortunately, her then-boss-and-mentor (shout out to Chuck Norman) allowed her to bring on a pro-bono nonprofit client (shout out to Band Together) and the rest is history. Her world started colliding with countless nonprofits and their missions, staff, volunteers, boards of directors, donors and champions. Little by little, her professional network started taking shape… one that continues to serve her to this day.
As the seeds were planted, Caitlin’s passion for providing excellent communications for meaningful causes grew and she knew she wanted to go deeper with nonprofits than just the occasional pro-bono agency model would allow. But the Lord wasn’t quite ready for that step in her journey. Over the next several years, the Lord began to reveal two invaluable lessons that gave Caitlin the courage to venture out on her own and start Angel Oak Creative. And over the past decade, He has continued to reaffirm those lessons.
Lesson #1: The mission field is where you are in the present.
From 2008-2010, the Lord led Caitlin to the Dominican Republic, and after a stint as an overseas missionary, Caitlin came home in search of purpose and meaningful work. She hadn’t forgotten the nonprofit community but still felt called to be a missionary.
From 2010-2012, the Lord continued to reinforce her talents in marketing and communications. He also kept bringing her to a bible passage: “and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
Wait, what? Missionary work started at home, not overseas? This was a monumental mind shift for Caitlin. She realized the nonprofit sector was her mission field at home (Jerusalem). And her gift was communications and marketing. How could she blend the two? By focusing at home first, maybe she could help impact Judea and Samaria (regionally and nationally) and to the end of the earth (globally).
The Lord was watering the seeds He had planted before her overseas mission work and a business plan started taking form. What about changing the narrative on the way marketing firms worked with nonprofits? Instead of the occasional pro-bono model, was it possible for a marketing agency to survive with only nonprofits as its clients and charge for excellent work with the brand promise of an ROI? The race was on.
Caitlin’s tireless volunteer work with every cause she could get her hands on, nonprofit board service and connections with professionals who believed in her led to three flagship clients – only one of which was a nonprofit (shout out to Passage Home).
So, on February 23, 2012, Caitlin (with the support of her twin sister Daphne who was living in Denver, CO at the time) took a leap of faith and Angel Oak Creative opened its doors. By 2015, Angel Oak Creative had put its stake in the ground as a marketing agency serving nonprofits exclusively (a business model many mentors cautioned would fail).
Though Angel Oak Creative’s vision, mission and legacy have evolved over the years, two things haven’t changed: a company dedicated to glorifying the Lord and a belief that the people solving the community’s greatest challenges deserve to have their causes promoted wholeheartedly. But the plan actually goes back further than just a decade.
Lesson #2: The Lord prepares work in advance for us to do.
The Lord had been at work all along aligning crucial conversations in the nonprofit sector with Angel Oak Creative’s founding. Though both were in their infancy, these conversations were enough to help a startup survive those first few painstaking years.
In 2012, the conversation around the nonprofit sector and the way philanthropists viewed nonprofit spending had started to evolve. Following the viral TED talk from Dan Pallotta, nonprofits began challenging the stifling 80-20% programs-to-overhead spending model. Rather than being shamed for allocating funds to efforts like marketing, they dreamed of a world where nonprofits were encouraged to reinvest in their own organizations with intentionality… resulting in greater missional growth and impact. And the sector’s voice broke through.
These conversations were crucial to the early years of Angel Oak Creative. Had they not already been taking place when Angel Oak Creative opened its doors, the business model may not have been successful. As Caitlin put this new way of thinking to the test, the community responded in ways she could never have imagined. Boards and donors began to loosen the reins on financial restrictions, seeing nonprofit re-investment as a fiduciary responsibility rather than an oversight. They rolled up their sleeves and re-committed to solving humanity’s greatest issues.
As Caitlin mentioned earlier, she didn’t know what she was starting. She’s also not shy to admit she didn’t know what she was doing. But she credits the Lord with always giving her just enough light for the step she’s on. And she believes that’s because “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good work, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10)
A decade later, Angel Oak Creative is still committed to being a city on a hill, telling the stories of the good work nonprofits are doing and using our passion for marketing as a way to bring a little more of heaven to earth. A decade later, the roots of our brand still point back to the Lord’s protection and provision over our company: the Angel Oak tree in South Carolina that has withstood the test of time and storms of life.
It’s taken grace, grit and a whole lot of gratitude in our quest to leave a legacy of generosity. But, built on a firm foundation, Angel Oak Creative has learned firsthand that marketing does work to amplify nonprofit missions and impact. We wouldn’t still be here if it didn’t.