‘Child Bedlessness May Not Be a Word, But It’s a Real Problem’
Luke Mickelson describes himself and his team at Sleep in Heavenly Peace as “just a bunch of hicks from Idaho.” The remarkable growth of his nonprofit tells a very different story, of a group of committed volunteers who were startled to find children without beds to sleep on in their community and created an organization that has grown to have nearly 270 chapters across the country and in four foreign nations. Mickelson, named a CNN Hero in 2018, spoke with Spotlight recently about SHP’s difficult experience during the pandemic, the surge in interest its seen in recent months, and the lessons the organization’s rapid growth might offer for other nonprofits. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Tell us a little about how this idea got started
Sure. I’m just a farm kid from Idaho and I like to share that because while I’m super proud of where SHP has gone, I always want to make sure that people understand that it’s grown because of a mission, not because of a man. In 2012, I was a leader over a church group for young men, ages 12 to about 17 or 18, and in our meetings within the congregation it came up that there was a family that the church was helping and one of the needs that came up was beds for the kids. And it just struck a chord with me—that there were kids who didn’t have beds, which seemed crazy. What were they doing, sleeping on the floor? Turns out yeah, they were. It just really hit me. I’ve got kids and to think about kids sleeping on the floor just appalled me.
We kicked around some ideas and the thought came to me, hey I’ve got these young men and what a great opportunity to teach them a skill like building something. I went home that night and I told my wife, I’m going to do something here with the boys. My daughter had a bunk bed, so I made a few little tweaks, but we basically just copied my daughter’s bed. We chopped up the wood and sanded it and put it together and by the end, we had a bunk bed.
I didn’t go on the delivery, but the boys and their parents and others from the church did. And the next day at church, I just heard the great stories of how amazing the delivery was. And the boys loved it. It was Christmas time and I remember my kids talking about all the toys that they wanted and here I’d had this great experience of giving a child something that we take for granted. I wanted my kids to feel the joy of not just serving people but also the joy of giving back to the community and helping someone else. I had some leftover wood, and I just got up and went outside and decided to build another bunk bed. I wanted to give it to a kid, but I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. My wife recommended that I just throw it up on Facebook and I ended up with more people being interested in the opportunity to help out. I did get a call from a friend from a town about 30 miles away who told me about this family where the six-year-old girl, Haley, had been sleeping in the back of her mom’s car since she was born. I rushed this bed over and I’d seen poverty before, but this just hit me hard. Looking in the corner of her room, there was this pile of clothes, a little nest, and that’s what she was sleeping on. I was raised by a single mom too, so it really touched my heart.
As we were driving home, the thought came to me: I spent a couple of hours, three or four nights a week, building a bed for a child. What better use of my time could there be? And I said to myself, no kid is going to sleep on the floor in my town. We built 22 beds that first year and we delivered them all before Christmas. And the experience was just life-changing. The next year we expanded to Boise, and in 2014 we decided that we couldn’t finance it on our own and we had a lot of people who wanted to contribute. We ended up becoming a 501C3. And we realized a number of things. Child bedlessness may not be a word, but it’s a real problem and we had no idea how bad it was. Number 2, there was a community of volunteers that was just dying to help. Helping a child find a place to sleep really struck a chord with people. It had been just a Christmas thing but then we started doing a lot more builds throughout the year. We found that people from around the country wanted to help, so we started this chapter system where we would teach folks what we’re doing and help them to raise money and all sorts of stuff. In 2017, we added 9 chapters.
How many chapters do you have now?
We’ve trained 269 chapters nationwide and in four different countries. We just surpassed 80,000 beds that we’ve built since 2012. We now average adding about 5 chapters a month and our annual bed-building goal is 40,000 beds a year.
That’s amazing. And how does the training work? Do you have people come to you or do you do it virtually?
Good question. It started out with just a phone call back in the day but now anybody can go to shpbeds.org/start-a-chapter. We take a little bit of information and they watch a webinar to give them the 50,000-foot view of what we do and then if they want to continue, they’re sent an application, a 5-page application that kind of lets us get to know them and them to get to know us. Once they submit that, we have the country split up into nine different regions and each region has what we call a regional support lead. They receive the applications, review them and then contact the applicant and invite them to another, live webinar. We just want to be sure they understand what the process entails and how much time it takes; we’ve had over 4500 people submit initial applications, but only 270 of those have become chapters. People get excited and they want to volunteer, but there’s a big difference with being a chapter president.
But to answer your question, once they go through those two webinars, we schedule a training. Every four months we do a training in Twin Falls, Idaho, but we also do regional trainings. I’m getting ready to go to Mechanicville, New York, where we’re going to train 10 or 12 chapters.
How many full-time employees do you have?
We have 7 full-time staffers and about 13 volunteers who get small stipends. It’s a bigger payroll than I ever thought!
But it seems incredibly lean to do all the work you’re doing
We’re pretty proud. The last thing I wanted to be was a charity where you donated money and it went to some pie in the sky, you never know exactly where it went. With a lot of managing, we maintain that when you go to our website and you want to donate to SHP, you can actually donate to whatever chapter that you want to donate to and that money stays there. We only take 10% as a management expense; 90% of the dollars donated to a particular chapter stay with that chapter.
Spotlight works with a lot of grassroots organizations and many of them struggle with expanding their networks and developing a reliable funding base. Do you have any particular tips for success?
It’s funny—when our organization really took off, I would get calls once a week from other nonprofits who might be starting out or struggling who would say, ‘How are you doing this Luke? How did you get from point A to point B?’ We want to help people so we’ve developed a training course that we call the Passion Project. Because what we found for SHP, especially for organizations that want to grow and grow into other states, we’ve learned a lot. I’ve also started writing a book about what has made SHP successful.
I’ll give you just two examples of what would really help. First and foremost, I tell people to be aware of mission creep; it’s a real big problem. When I was first researching turning SHP into a 501C3, I took a look at another charity here in town. And when I walked into this house, it was floor to ceiling full of bikes and books and clothes and everything else you can think of. And I thought, I don’t even know what to do here. I couldn’t manage all of that. I just looked at that and thought that there has to be a more efficient way, and if you want to be good, you better be good at one thing and be the best. Our very first year, we delivered toys and food, but when we came out of that experience, I told our team, we’re going to do one thing and that’s provide a bed for a kid. That’s it. You have to stay focused and because of that, we’ve been able to keep our attention on our message and our mission. We just keep it really simple and a simple clear message means a lot to a potential donor and to a volunteer.
The second thing I’d say is networking; you have to get the community involved and the more community members that can actually put hands onto your mission, I promise you, the faster it will grow. We’re very lucky in that our mission requires as many volunteers as we need physically working together to build something. We like to say that the happiest volunteer is the sweatiest and the dustiest.
The other thing I talk about is the financing part of SHP. Unlike most nonprofits, money is just about the last thing we have problems with. And the reason why is that our mission, which is building beds for kids, is really the fundraiser. What our heart and soul is behind is the fundraiser. I tell nonprofits all the time, don’t do fundraisers, and I usually get this weird look; as I write in my book, it’s like telling a fisherman to go fishing without a fishing pole. But no one wants to spend time working on a gala or a spaghetti dinner because it’s not around the mission. So, if there is a way to make your mission finance itself, then you will never starve for another dollar.
How is the organization different coming out of the pandemic?
The pandemic hurt us on two major fronts. Because we’re so community active on these bed builds, that all got shut down. We couldn’t build one bed and delivering beds was even harder because you couldn’t go into these homes. The second thing that really hit us was that we knew that applications were going to go higher and higher because people were in trouble. We actually lost some chapters because of the sheer frustration that they couldn’t provide beds anymore. It was like looking into this abyss that was getting deeper and deeper. The third thing that’s hurt is that the wood prices have gone through the roof and there’s actually a global mattress shortage now for twin-sized beds. We’ve been hit on almost every level.
But there have also been benefits. Coming out of the pandemic, we’ve seen a tremendous bounce-back of people wanting to help. In 2020, we only trained 30 chapters. So far in 2021, we’re already at 48 chapters. We’re seeing people who are tired of sitting back—they’re ready to help people.