Posted by Cara Scharf on May 10, 2011
Anne Mahlum was weeks away from taking a corporate job at Comcast when she literally ran into a life-changing idea. She was 26, new to Philadelphia, and keeping up with an activity that she had done since age 16: running. During her morning runs, she passed a group of homeless men at a shelter. They playfully joked with her, “Are you ever going to stop running?” And she joked back, “Are you ever going to start?”
That’s when Mahlum, now 29, had a thought that would eventually grow into the fully staffed nonprofit organization Back on My Feet (BOMF). “I wondered, ‘Why am I just running by these guys everyday? Why don’t I take them with me?’” Mahlum emailed the executive director of the shelter asking if she could start a running club for the homeless. Though the director was initially skeptical, immediate interest from nine shelter members and donations of shoes, socks, and shirts from a local running store helped put the plan into action within days.
On July 3, 2007, Mahlum pounded the pavement for the first time with her new recruits. Mahlum’s vision expanded rapidly. “I realized this could be more than a running club. It could change people’s lives. I thought about all the places in Philadelphia and the country that needed a program like this.” A day before she was supposed to report to work at Comcast, she called and gave up her position in government affairs. “I was sorry, but you can’t pick the moments that change your life. I had found my purpose and I had to give everything I had to it.”
Running may not be a traditional step in a homeless person’s road to recovery, but Mahlum knows its healing power from personal experience. When she was 16, her father revealed his gambling problem and her mother kicked him out of the house. That’s when Mahlum hit the streets and found running to be a therapeutic way to deal with problems.
“At first you think you’re running away from something. But then you realize you’re running toward something,” she says. “It takes a lot to be a good runner: discipline, commitment, respect, dedication. I saw all of that in myself and it really helped my self esteem.”
Mahlum founded BOMF with the belief that those same qualities could ease people’s struggles with homelessness. The program requires members (approved residents from participating homeless shelters) to attend early morning runs three days a week. The schedule is intended to instill structure and discipline back into a life of tumult, and bring order to activities, such as job searching and rehabilitation. Members start with one mile and slowly build up, requiring a great amount of persistence and hard work. “To get to a tenth mile you have to do miles one through nine,” says Mahlum. “You can’t skip.”
Members feel a sense of personal accomplishment once they reach their mileage goals, says Mahlum, giving them confidence to take on more responsibilities and get their lives back on track. The physical benefits are also important. “You can’t help but feel good after a workout,” says Mahlum, adding that most members lose weight and are encouraged to eat well and stop smoking.
The program has had many success stories. One example is Darius Turner, who landed in a Philadelphia shelter after leaving a marriage gone bad in Florida. In January 2009 he joined BOMF and less than a year later, moved out of the shelter and was hired for two jobs.
Turner is just one of many. Of nearly 170 members, 33 have obtained housing and 46 have secured jobs. In terms of running, 141 members have completed a competitive race, including half marathons (13.1 miles) and marathons (26.2 miles).
Speaking with Mahlum, it becomes clear that being a successful entrepreneur takes some special qualities—namely, purpose, people skills, and passion. Growing a single running club into a million-dollar organization took all three.
Mahlum had to garner support from volunteers and the community, and establish a structure that could be duplicated elsewhere. Having worked with nonprofits before, Mahlum also knew she needed legal assistance to comply with the Pennsylvania Bureau of Charitable Organizations and obtain tax-exempt, charitable 501(c)(3) status. She reached out to lawyers for pro bono help, got under an umbrella organization called the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition, and used their status to raise enough funds to obtain its own status. BOMF got a big break in December 2007 when ABC World News ran a story about the organization; by January 2008, Mahlum had enough money to hire a fulltime staff member.
Now, with 12 fulltime employees and nearly 750 volunteers, the self-described entrepreneur acknowledges the need to work well with others. “Business relationships are relationships. If you are good with people, you can grow a business.” Revenue also has to be amassed through donations, grants, and corporate sponsorships—which takes plenty of networking.
Mahlum wants to take the organization national one day, but realizes it will take more than hard work. “This isn’t about normal business hours anymore. It’s a part of life.” She maintains this commitment to the organization by preserving her passion for running and turning her passion into action. “It’s like Nike’s motto: Just do it. So many people talk about ideas, but what’s the harm in actually doing?”