Ep #62 | Celebrate Life

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After losing her daughter to a terminal condition, Ashley developed a new perspective on success, life, and love. She's the founder and executive director of Love Not Lost, a nonprofit who photographs people facing a terminal diagnosis to celebrate life, preserve memories, and support people in grief. In addition to the free portrait sessions they provide, Love Not Lost is on a mission to empower others to show up and love the people they care about who are hurting too. Everyone deserves to be loved and remembered. 

Ashley is passionate about growth, justice, and love. In fact, the driving question she asks daily is "How can we love people better?" She is constantly working on new initiatives and resources for Love Not Lost to answer that question as well as loving her self, husband, family, friends, and community better in her personal life. She loves speaking to companies, conferences, and groups about grief, love, and making the most of the time we have. You can learn more about Ashley's story at www.lovenotlost.org

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Shantel: Hi Ashley, welcome to the Imagine More Podcast. 

Ashley: Thank you so much for having me. 

Shantel: Yeah, I'm so excited to have you on. I know we initially met at a friend's dinner a while ago, and to benefit your organization. I was so, so impressed when we connected, so I'm so glad to have you on the show, and have our guests listening in as well. 

Ashley: Awesome, thank you. 

Shantel: Of course. Can you kick it off and just tell our listeners a little bit more about your journey, and Love Not Lost, and what you guys do? 

| "HOW DO WE WANT TO LIVE?" |

Ashley: Sure, yeah. I'll try and give you the super condensed version. My husband and I had a daughter. At two months old we found out she had a terminal condition called SMA, which is Spinal Muscular Atrophy. Really similar to ALS, things degenerate, and there's no cure. At the time obviously that's the worst news you can get as a parent. But, my husband and I knew, "Okay, if our time is short, how do we want to live?" We made really intentional decisions to make the most of the time that we had together. We had some really amazing friends show up and support as well. Obviously we had a lot of friends disappear, because it was just too much to handle, or they just didn't know what to do, so they didn't do anything, and just disappeared. But, we had some really incredible people show up. One of those people were our friends from college, and they gifted us a professional portrait session with this professional photographer named Tessa who came and photographed our family just to preserve memories. At the time, I was a photographer myself, and I knew how special those photos were. But, it wasn't until after Skylar died, around 21 months old, that those photos took on a whole new meaning and impact in my life. Really, Skylar died, I was a total hot mess of depression, and grief, and just hopelessness. I was like, "What am I going to do with myself?" I didn't want to get out of bed, and the only reason I did was to let my dog out. It was like, "Okay, what do I do?" I decided to start my own business, because the corporate world is not a friend of grief. I knew I couldn't go back to a corporate job. But, I knew I had to do something. I started my own photography business. Anytime I heard of anyone facing a terminal diagnosis, I would offer to do a free session. That began kind of this beginning journey of Love Not Lost. Most people took me up on it, and we would do these really beautiful portrait sessions. I would end up giving prints, and artwork, and photo books, just because I'm a giver. That's my love language. My husband was like, "I love you babe. But seriously, we have our own bills to pay. Please stop giving it all away." I was like, "You're right." But, at the same time I'm not going to charge a single penny to these families, because I know how hard it was when we were going through it, to not know when the next bill's coming, not know how much insurance is going to cover or not cover, funeral expenses, all of that. I knew that if I cared this much about it, that I could probably find other people who cared about it too, and who would join me in giving it all away. That's when I began forming a nonprofit, and Love Not Lost was born. 

Shantel: Well, I appreciate you sharing that story, and I can't imagine it feels any easier when you kind of dive into that. But, I appreciate the vulnerability there. 

Ashley: Yeah. 

Shantel: I'm curious, so now that it's a nonprofit, how have you been able to monetize it in a way that feels right to you, and make sense as a ... I mean, does it have a for profit arm to it, to help subsidize your living? 

Ashley: No. Really, we have ... I mean it's all pretty much run on donations. We've gotten a few small grants. Northside Hospital was our first larger grant. They gave us a community grant last year to help us get started. It's actually been a really beautiful relationship, because they gave us $5,000 for the community grant, and then we were actually able to start partnering with them, and have been serving their stage four oncology patients across different Satellite Centers, and hospitals across the state. That's been really cool. We've had just a lot of amazing individuals say, "Hey, I lost a loved one and I so wish I would have had this. I'm happy to pay it forward to someone else." We've had people that we've actually served kind of recover financially and say, "Hey, I want to be a part of actually doing this for other people so people can have the same gift that we had." Then, there are people who are just like, "Wow." They get it, they love what we're doing, and they just want to help. That's been really special too. As far as sustainability and profitability, we obviously need to cover operating expenses. Part of that is staff, part of that is software subscriptions, and the things that actually run our business so that we can provide these free portrait sessions. Then also, the cost of it. We do a really beautiful hand crafted photo album to every family that we serve. Again, the families don't pay a single penny. That's actually expenses flowing out every month. Again, that's when we rely on our donors, and we're actually starting to get corporate sponsorships as well, and that's really helpful to kind of cover the staff side. 

Shantel: That's, yeah, that's great. I love that you mentioned the pay it forward piece, because I think I can certainly relate to that, and just wishing that I had some of those moments as well, and wanting to gift that to someone else. How do you spread that message? How are people learning about you, and kind of creating that safe space to I guess even suggest, "I would like to give this to you." Because, I imagine there's a lot of emotions that play into that. 

Ashley: Yeah, so when we started it was really interesting to hear feedback from both sides. There were people who were like, "Yeah, I want to give in honor, or in memory of someone." We actually have the ability to do that on our website, so if you go to the donate page on LoveNotLost.org. Once you click on the donate button, you'll be taken to a form that you can give in honor and memory of someone, which is a really special feature. But, then as far as paying it forward, we've had people who have donated $1,000 to cover a session. That covers the whole session, plus the photo book. That's been really wonderful. Then we've had people who say, "Hey, I maybe can't financially contribute, but I know of this family that's facing a terminal diagnosis. What does that look like, how can I give this, or tell them about it?" Because, a lot of times, especially with heavy situations, it's really awkward to figure out, "Okay, what's the best way? I don't want to offend someone, I don't know what to say, it's a little awkward." We actually created some grief tools and resources to empower people to show up in those times. One of which is a gift a session certificate. You can go on our website under, I think it's under the grief toolbox. We have an empathy card, a care card, and a gift a session certificate. That's something that is almost like a gift that you can give, that doesn't make it awkward 'cause it's a gift, and so people can either receive it and cash in on it. Or, they can just say, "Oh. Thanks for the gift." Then throw it away if they don't want it, you know? We're working really, really hard to empower the greater community, to show up for their loved ones in grief. Because, we know as an organization, Love Not Lost. Essentially when we show up to do a session, we're kind of strangers to these people. We have no problem showing up, and we love doing it, and we love, loving on people. But, it's so much more powerful if we show up, and their friends and family, and community show up around them too. That's what we really want to work towards, is normalizing grief. It's not scary. People are still people, and they want to be cared for, and loved for. Our goal at Love Not Lost is to keep pushing out these tools and resources to empower you, and the greater community to show up for loved ones who are hurting. 

Shantel: I love that. Yeah, you mentioned at the very beginning that you wanted ... What inspired you to start this company is certainly the experience you had. But, then also the realization that corporate America, or a corporate environment would not be a friend of grief. 

Ashley: Correct. 

Shantel: So many of our listeners are business owners starting businesses. Creating a team environment, and culture is a big piece of that. Do you have any suggestions for leaders, how to ... Because, life happens. I mean, there are going to be things with our team that are the most important thing, and should certainly be the priority. How can we support people well in a time of grief? 

| HONE IN ON THE TODAY |

Ashley: Yeah. I mean, I think there are two parts to that. I think well one, thank you for asking that, because I do think it's a huge issue that a lot of corporations don't address. I mean, just look at a lot of the grief policies. The average is three days of paid leave. I mean, that means if someone ... If you lost a parent, or a spouse, or a kid on a Monday, you would have to go back to work that same week. I think that's just ridiculous. But, I think a big part of it too is, corporations ... It's all about the culture. Part of it is creating this culture from the very beginning, of, "Hey, even though we're a big company, we still care. We care about our employees, we care about what's going on in your life." I think that's something that needs to be cultivated all throughout the process, whether you're hurting or not. Just, this attitude of leaders caring for their employees. Then, when something actually happens, being able to address it and say, "Hey. This is so hard, and I know this is going to affect your performance. I care about you, I care about what you're going through. Please have this open communication with me, and let me know how I can be there for you." But, also as a leader trying to recognize if you have that relationship with that person, you'll know, or you should be able to know how you can be there for that person. If that person has kids, or if that person has a dog, or whatever. Maybe being more lenient for finding childcare, or taking a break to let the dog out, or whatever that person might need. Then, just I think as a leader too, recognizing when someone has a life altering thing happen in their lives, in their personal lives, it's going to come into the workplace. As leaders, we have to know that if we have healthy people working for us, we're going to have a healthy work environment. And so, really cultivating this practice of self love, and self care, and community, and relationships, and people supporting one another so that when something does happen, it's not this shock, and elephant in the room that no one talks about. But it's like, "Hey, how are you doing today? What's going on today in your life? How are you feeling?" Because, that's going to change from day to day. And, just checking in with people and letting them know that you care I think is really, really important. And, not just going silent and falling off the radar. 

Shantel: Yeah. No, that's a really good point about really honing in on the today, and not kind of making it a blanket statement, or trying to generalize the situation. Because, like you mentioned, each day will be different. I also really, I mean the grief of three days kind of paid time off. 

Ashley: Yeah. 

Shantel: Even just look, maybe a first step for all of us is to make sure in our handbook, maybe there's not a hard policy because every situation will be different. 

Ashley: Right. 

Shantel: And, just leading with it's case by case, and we are here to help support however we can. I think- 

Ashley: Yeah, absolutely. 

Shantel: ... Let's jump- 

Ashley: If you do ... I was going to say, if a corporate company does have a hard number, I would really, really encourage you to at least bump it to five. Again, if someone dies on a Monday, that means they don't have to come back to work that whole week. That is such a gift to give someone, to plan the funeral, and not have to worry about anything work related. That, I think often people just don't even think about, "What does this actually look like in someone's life?" 

Shantel: ... Mm-hmm. No, that's great. Let's switch gears a little bit. I mean, from some personal conversations we've had, I know your team continues to grow, you have an amazing board. 

Ashley: Mm-hmm. 

Shantel: Let's dive into the team piece. How have you delegated some of the pieces that you probably held really dear to your heart initially? 

Ashley: Yeah. That's a good question. It takes practice. It's really hard. But, I also know I can't do everything, and my vision for Love Not Lost is for us to grow to a national level, with the potential to even go international. My, I know that in order for Love Not Lost to see that vision as a reality, I can't do everything. It's finding people that I can trust, who care, and who have a standard for excellence that I have to train, and share my vision, and watch them take it on as their own. To, really work together, to grow, and reach our goals, and reach our vision to take Love Not Lost to the world. 

Shantel: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I mean I think delegating is hard enough. Then, when it's something so personal, and came from such a personal experience, I can imagine that being so difficult. 

Ashley: Yeah, and we had ... A perfect example is, we had a summer intern this past, his last day was just last week. He was with us all summer, and he was a graphic design student from Clemson University. It's the same program I went through, so I was really familiar with where he was at. I gave him the task of designing our annual report. Like I said, my background was in the same thing, so I was graphics communications. It was really funny 'cause I was like, "Okay, most interns get really crap jobs. You normally get stuck filing, or running errands or whatever." I was like, "I am giving you the project that I have wanted to do for years. This is something that is fun for me, and it's so exciting. I would love to create this gorgeous magazine, annual report type book." I was like, "I just don't have the time, and so I'm giving this project to you, and I'm really jealous. Because, this is something that I would absolutely love to do, but you're going to need to do this." Anyway, it was good. That was the perfect example of something that I really wanted to do, and I just had to let it go. 

Shantel: Yeah. Well, that is certainly a big project. I'm excited to see it. 

Ashley: Yes. 

Shantel: I mean, speaking of things, that is something that you're really great. But, speaking of things that maybe drain you. 

Ashley: Mm-hmm. 

Shantel: Have you, I mean is there anything that comes to mind that you're really excited one day soon to get off your plate? 

Ashley: Yeah, lots of things. Well, right now we have a part-time Director of Operations. Her gifting is definitely administrative stuff, and that is such a gift to me because for the longest time, just spreadsheets were in my nightmares. Dealing with numbers, and organization, and that's just all not my strong suit. I've learned, and have grown in that area tremendously. I can do a spreadsheet, I can navigate through them, and I can look at numbers, and I can do all that now. But, it's still not something that really excites me, or brings me joy or anything like that. Having Lindsay, our Director of Operations right now on staff has been really, really helpful because we've transitioned our donor CRM this summer. She's been huge in just making sure all of the entries are correct, that we're not going to lose any data migrating over, and handling all of that. Holy moly, that is such a gift to me, because that is just like pulling teeth for me, to sit there and do that. It would just take me forever, and I'd be miserable. The fact that Lindsay's actually really gifted in that area, and doesn't mind doing that. I mean, that's how you want to build your team. It's like looking for people who have strengths, that are different from yours so that you can all use your strengths to work together, and move the vision forward. 

Shantel: Well, she sounds amazing. That sounds like a horrible project. But, so nice to hear that someone else loves that. 

Ashley: I know, it's great. There are people out there who do love it. 

Shantel: I mean, you have casted a huge vision to- 

Ashley: Mm-hmm. 

Shantel: ... Maybe national and international, which I certainly admire because I think where my strengths are just small bite sized visions with a very executable plan, and a little bit more granular. Maybe because it's less scary, I'm not quite sure. But, I admire the big vision. How do you anticipate getting there? 

| GO BIG OR GO HOME |

Ashley: Well, thank you. My friends will tell you that the kind of joke of my life is, the theme has become go big or go home. But, very unintentionally. There have just been so many things that have happened in my life that tend to just kind of blow up to a much bigger thing that I ever imagined. Love Not Lost is actually one that I intentionally cast a big vision for. That, for me, I don't need to know how I'm going to work it all out. I don't need to know all the details of how I'm going to make it work right now. I think that's something that holds people up from executing their vision, because I know right now, I can grow Love Not Lost in Atlanta, and I can probably take it to a few more cities. But, I'm not going to do all this by myself. There's no possible way. For me, it's like okay, how can I get Love Not Lost to the next step? Then, find people who can actually help me grow this thing the way I want to grow it? Perfect example was, at the Food Through Flowers fundraising dinner that we met, Dianne Riffle hosted, and she joined our board. One of the reasons why I asked her to join our board was because she took Octane Coffee from idea, to this iconic, really cornerstone coffee shop of Atlanta. Then, took it and started scaling it to other cities before selling it to Revelator. I knew Dianne had the experience to help Love Not Lost, at least jump over some of the hurdles that I have zero experience with, to figure out what does it look like to take something to another state? What are some of the regulations, or whatever? I know Dianne did it for a for profit, so nonprofits a little bit different. But, there's still a lot of the same concepts, and a lot of the same knowledge that's going to be really helpful. That's a thing too that I think when you're thinking about building your team, whether you're a nonprofit or a for profit, finding those people who've been there and done that, and can help you get to that next step, and don't get overwhelmed by the grandiose vision of what you want to do. If I sat and thought about taking it overseas right now, I might freak out a little bit, 'cause I hate laws, I hate paperwork, and making sure we're finding the right certificates that we have to get, and business licenses, and all of that. But, that would overwhelm me if I tried to do all of that right now. But, we're not there yet, and it's a process. I think people forget to enjoy the process, and take it step at a time, and get kind of frozen, or overwhelmed by this greater vision. When really, it's just next step, just next step forward, next step forward. Then before you know it, you look back 10 years, and you're like, "Whoa, we're a national organization. This is awesome." 

Shantel: Nice. So, 10 years, we're going to have you back on the show and you're going to say- 

Ashley: Yep. 

Shantel: ... "We're going international now." 

Ashley: Yes. 

Shantel: No, I think that's so powerful. Just, I mean so much of having a business, and staying motivated, and kind of putting one foot in front of the other is surrounding yourself with people that you admire, and that know more, and have different strengths. I think that's certainly very profound. How many people are on your board, and how did you go about building that board? 

Ashley: Yeah, so starting out, we actually started out with three people on my board. The President was actually the husband of the couple who had gifted us the portrait session, so Trey Boden was our President starting out. I asked him because I knew he was someone who showed up for us, and knew how to love us well, even though he had never gone through anything like what we went through. And so, I knew for my board of directors, I needed ... Starting out, I needed people who really understood how to love people well, how to care for people in grief, and got my vision. Trey was the President. Austin Grig, who's another good friend from college. He and his wife Lauren showed up every month with dinner. They had, had a little boy the same time that we had Skylar, so they would bring him over, and they would play together. They were just so wonderful, and loving, and serving our family. Then Nicole Wedekind was the third person that I added for the beginning. She was actually a friend who met me after, like right after Skylar died. I was like, "If she could be my friend when I'm at my lowest of lows, I think she'll be great at loving people through grief, and having the grace, and patience, and understanding to build these relationships." On top of all of their emotional, and personal health as people, they're also extremely talented. Austin is the Co-Founder of Kalon Creative. Nicole works for branding agencies, and is super talented in strategically positioning brands, and helping them grow. Then Trey was the Creative Director at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School, and they're all just really talented, forward-thinking individuals. That was important to me. Then, we've just added on since then. Rachel, she's the Senior Manager at an accounting firm. We added Dianne Riffle who I mentioned before, Co-Founder of Octane. Berlin, Jeffke, Megan. We've really just focused on what are our needs as an organization, and who are people who can help us get there, while also bringing in unique perspectives, their individual talents and skills, and their networks to be able to help Love Not Lost keep growing? 

Shantel: That's great. I mean, it sounds like all of their strengths certainly compliment one another. 

Ashley: Mm-hmm. 

Shantel: And, they bring different perspectives to the table. What is the cadence in which you guys meet, or talk, or how you lean on them? 

Ashley: Yeah, so we meet every quarter, once a quarter for three hours. We have a board meeting in person. Then, at the end of the year we actually have a day long board retreat, so it's like 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM on a weekend. We'll kind of plan the strategy for the whole next year, and really dive into planning, and just either launching new programs, or refining things that we're already doing, and new partnerships, and just more of strategic planning. Yeah, then every March, or every Spring ... Next year it's going to be March 1st, 2019 is our annual auction celebration. Bringing together people we've served, donors, people who are new to Love Not Lost, who just want to learn more. We do an annual auction celebration every spring to bring that together, and that's actually a really amazing way to kind of recruit new board members. This past auction, we had three people come up to us afterwards and they were like, "Oh my gosh, we love what you're doing. We had no idea the depth of everything that you're doing, and the programs you're launching. We want to sit on your board." That was actually surprising, and a really fun way to get to know people, and have them get to know Love Not Lost. We're really excited, this next one is March 1st, 2019. We'll see what happens there. 

Shantel: Oh, that's really exciting. We'll definitely be sure to hyperlink in the show notes too if people are interested in learning more about that. 

Ashley: Cool. 

Shantel: I only have a couple more questions for you Ashley. 

Ashley: Yeah. 

Shantel: The first is, do you have any advice for people that are interested in starting something, and specifically a nonprofit? 

| RESEARCH, RESEARCH, RESEARCH |

Ashley: Yes. My first piece of advice always is, research, research, research. Because, if there is someone doing what you want to be doing, it is so much easier to jump on board, and help an existing nonprofit grow. Instead of going through all of the intense paperwork, and finances, and everything that it takes to get a nonprofit into existence. I research for a really, really long time, looking for organizations that were doing something like this, and I couldn't find anyone. There is an organization called Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep, but they only serve babies who don't make it home from the hospital. Then, there's this organization called Magic Hour, but they only serve cancer patients. There was just no umbrella to serve just the generic, any age, any illness, facing a terminal diagnosis. That's why I started Love Not Lost. But, I would have been happy to join another nonprofit to help them instead. Definitely research. See what other people are doing, see what you can learn from other people. My advice is really just, I mean it's kind of simple. But, don't be competitive. You can be competitive with yourself, and growing, comparing yourself to yourself yesterday, trying to improve and be better. But, don't worry about competing with other people, because it'll just sidetrack you from your vision, and what you're meant to do. Work together. We're trying to work with other nonprofits who are in the grief world, so that we can all kind of help each other out, and help the greater community. When we can help each other, we can impact so many more people than we could just on our own. That's my advice. Definitely be strategic in who you ask to help, and who you share your vision with. I think people are the most important decisions you will ever make. I could give a whole lot more, but I'll stop there. 

Shantel: No, those are great snippets. Then last but not least to get you out of here at that 30 minutes, how can people get involved and/or get in touched and learn more? 

Ashley: Yeah, so our website, LoveNotLost.org, is a great way to just kind of dive in, and learn more. You can watch, we have a promo video, and stories. You can read about people we've served, like other families that we've served on our blog. If you're a photographer and you want to get involved, we have an application process that you can get to from our website. If you want to donate, if you love what we're doing and you want to support us, you can do that through the website. That's all great. My email is Ashley, A-S-H-L-E-Y @LoveNotLost.org. I'd be happy to talk to anybody who either has connections that they want to introduce us to, or just questions. Any way that I can help, let me know. I would love to be thrilled to do that. Then social media lastly is @LoveNotLost.org. Instagram is a great way to stay in touch with us, and just kind of see what we're up to, and follow along in real time. Then we're also active on Facebook and Twitter, but just not as much. 

Shantel: Perfect. Well, thank you so much Ashley, for being on the show and sharing your journey. 

Ashley: Yes, thank you so much for having me. This was great.