Last week at ISHI, the number one question we were asked at our booth was: “You are a non-profit? How….how does that workexactly?”Many are skeptical, but it works. It really does. To understand how it works, it helps to know more about how non-profits function, coming to terms with a different definition of investment, and learning to let the vision and mission lead the way forward.
What is a non-profit anyway?
A non-profit is an organization intended to further a social cause and provide a public benefit. In an ideal world, non-profits would not exist. The public good that they provide would not be needed. Sadly, we don’t live in an ideal world. There will always be gaps where governments and our communities are not able to meet the needs of its members. Every single non-profit begins with a single profound question: what can I do to make the world a bit better? It is that primary outward focus that makes non-profits different than for-profit entities. Intermountain Forensics started out originally as a program of our parent non-profit, the Cold Case Coalition. In the course of the work of the Coalition, they discovered an unmet need in the community- inadequate access to high quality and affordable forensic DNA testing. Many of the cases they were helping to investigate were cases that due to a lack of resources couldn’t receive all the testing they needed. Families were being left without resolution to their loved ones’ cases. Intermountain Forensics was founded to help meet that need. Last year, we budded off from the Cold Case Coalition to be our own separate non-profit.
Cultivating Community Not Investors
The goal of for-profit entities is to make money. If they can help their local communities as well, that’s wonderful… but that is not the main purpose of a for-profit company. In non-profits, the social good that they are providing is their primary focus. At Intermountain Forensics’, our primary focus is the science. Does this mean that non-profits can’t make money? Absolutely not. First of all, non-profits have expenses. Have you seen the costs of reagents? Phew! Also, as part of our mission to be able to provide high quality forensic science services, we need to invest in high quality people to do the work of our organization. They need to be paid fairly and equitably for their time and expertise. In the non-profit world, salary isn’t an overhead cost, but rather staff time and the fruits of their labor is the commodity we provide to the public.
Currently, Intermountain Forensics charges fees for our services. Those fees help to cover the costs of the organization. As part of our non-profit mandate, we keep those fees as low as possible. One day, we hope to be able to offer all of our services for free. How we get to that point is a long road. Instead of seeking investors to provide capital as in a for-profit entity, we cultivate a community to help us make ends meet. We apply for grants and contracts to cover our expenses, and we seek donations from foundations and from the general public. Since we don’t have investors expecting a return on their monetary investment, any net income we have goes right back into our program. It allows us to obtain better technology so that we can do more for the community.
We invite our partners, our clients, and our donors to share in our triumphs, to celebrate with us as part of the community we are creating together and to benefit from whatever we can share. One aspect of cultivating community is our commitment to transparency. All of our standard operating procedures are freely available to view online, as well as our validations. We don’t see this as proprietary information and firmly believe that making this information available is part of making forensic DNA science obtainable for all. We provide pro bono technical assistance to small organizations trying to make a start in the world. We offer grant writing assistance to law enforcement agencies trying to get funding to cover costs for their evidence backlogs free of charge. Our staff regularly presents to fellow researchers about our work and donates time to professional organizations to aid in the availability of forensic resources for the community. We provide educational training to law enforcement so that they know best how to approach their investigations. We do this work free of charge because this work is our answer to “how do we make the world a little bit better”?
Letting the Vision and Mission Lead
At Intermountain Forensics, we want to change the world. We want people to see the ways that forensic DNA can enrich our lives. This is why we actively seek out collaborative projects where we can help restore the names of those who have been lost. Be it by quietly assisting cold case units throughout the country identify their Jane and John Does, or taking on more public projects like our Tulsa DNA project that is seeking to identify victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. We process backlogged sexual assault kits because every victim deserves to have their case processed so that they can continue their journey of healing. This is also why we work with individuals in our Keepsake DNA program to have access to advanced sequencing so that they can learn more about their family histories. Every piece of evidence that comes through our doors is a part of someone else’s story. Our science allows others to be more connected to the stories that make up who they are.
Our full mission statement reads: We will strive to ensure the full power of Forensic DNA will always be attainable, affordable, timely, transparent and of the highest possible quality. While it is the last word of our mission, Quality is perhaps the most important aspect of how we approach the work we do. Rather than starting up our lab as quickly as possible and then going back to seek accreditation afterwards, we brought all our services online slowly in tandem with our accreditation. Intermountain Forensics is accredited by ANSI National Accreditation Board (ANAB) to the ISO/IEC 17025:2017 standards for Forensic Testing and Calibration Laboratories as a testing lab in the Biology discipline. You can look at our website to see our full scope, and even take a scroll through our news updates to see how that scope has expanded in our organization’s lifetime.
The ultimate goal of every non-profit (and every non-profit worker) should be to work themselves out of a job. We were founded because there was and continues to be a very real need for the services that we provide. Can you imagine a world where we wouldn’t be needed? What a wonderful place that would be. Won’t you join us in trying to create that world?