Kam Phillips is the Executive Dreamer of Dream Outside the Box, a nonprofit she started from her dorm room in 2009. She grew up in Ft. Worth, Texas as a rodeo cowgirl and received her Bachelor’s in Social Work from the University of Missouri.
Dream Outside the Box propels youth in dream deserts toward higher education while cultivating leadership skills among collegiate volunteers. By producing imaginative programming, college students broaden the horizons of K-5 youth and contribute toward the disruption of cyclical poverty.
Today, DOTB has a full-time staff, serves 13 sites, has shipped hundreds if not thousands of their subscription based Dream Delivered boxes across the U.S., South Africa, New Zealand with plans to ship to Swaziland towards the end of August.
BGWP: What role did faith play in starting your nonprofit?
Kam: A. W. Tozer once said “God never uses anyone greatly until he tests them deeply.” Learning this was comforting as I was tested seemingly every day in the two years from moving home to receiving my first salaried paycheck. I worked to convince potential funders to believe in the vision, assembled a team to help execute the plan and simultaneously launched new programming and worked an unrelated yet demanding part-time job to cover expenses (also repeatedly turning down stable full-time job offers because they did not fit in the plan for DOTB). Overall, I learned not to compare my beginning to someone else’s middle, that everything is either “a blessin’ or a lesson” and trust that, in the words of my Pastor, “if it’s God’s will, he’ll foot the bill.”
BGWP: Did you ever think Dream Outside the Box would be what it is today?
Kam: When I started Dream Outside the Box it wasn’t with the intention of turning it into an organization. I thought it would just be this thing I did at the Boys and Girls Club in Columbia, Missouri for four weeks.
Then kids started coming up to me asking “What are we going to do next?” and I was thinking in my head “There is no next.” But I couldn’t stop. I knew there was a need. It felt really irresponsible of me to light a spark and not help continue to ignite it.
I tried to be disobedient to that when I graduated. I thought [to myself] Dream Outside the Box was something I did in undergrad. So I moved to DC and worked with the US Department of Veteran Affairs. I also worked with the White House and got a lot of job offers but every day I would go into work knowing that job not what I was supposed to do, it’s not what I was called to do.'Every day I would go into work knowing that job not what what I was called to do.'Click To Tweet
You know you’re doing what you’re meant to be doing when you look in your rearview mirror and see how all these different stops you made along the way and lessons you learned work together. You think “Oh that’s why I didn’t get that internship.” It’s just so obvious that every step of the way has led me to this.
BGWP: How did you develop the courage to say no to all the “safe” jobs in order to pursue your calling?
Kam: Romans 8:28 really is why – For we know all things work together good for those who love God and are called according to His purpose. When you’re doing what God calls you to do, you simply have to trust him. He planted a seed, a fire in my belly and I have no reason to ever doubt Him because His track record is flawless.
BGWP: What have been some of your pinch me/”Are you sure I should be doing this God” moments?
Kam: The entire two years when I was living at home [with my parents] trying to get Dream Outside the Box off the ground and would go to swipe my debit card and hope that it would go through. I knew very clearly this was what God was calling me to do and it was what I wanted to do but it was so hard. I would go and fundraise and people would do everything short of laughing in my face. It was really tough. I always say if I had a dollar for every tear I shed during those two years we would be fully funded forever.'If I had a dollar for every tear I shed during those two years we would be fully funded forever.'Click To Tweet
But there have been things that are so awesome that I can’t put them into words. Things always work out. You just have to walk in faith.
BGWP: What is the hardest part about running a nonprofit?
Kam: As a nonprofit we’re really at the mercy of funding. I would love to judge my success solely on the lives we change but at the end of the day if we don’t have money in the bank the whole dream kind of dies. Unfortunately, in my role as the Executive Director compared to Director of Education and Operations or our Dream Engineers that do marketing, I have to make sure that we have enough money to not only do all of our programs but pay payroll taxes and rent.
Sometimes my assessment of my success is solely tied to a dollar amount and that’s tough because that’s not why I got into this. [Nevertheless], it’s what needs to be done and I’m the best person to advocate for our organization from a fundraising standpoint.
BGWP: What’s the most rewarding part about running a nonprofit?
Kam: I make it a point, even though I’m not really needed, to go to our programs and I do Dream Deliveries where we give kids boxes. I stop into the community center from time to time and every single thing the kids do every time I’m there is a reminder of why we do what we do. Whether it’s on the Southside of Chicago with kids sewing up sutures on bananas, practicing their surgical skills or in Boulder, Colorado between mountains watching kids explore new careers.
Moments where I get to be reminded are crucial and that’s why I make them a priority to see why we’re doing all this and what the outcome is.
BGWP: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Kam: I wouldn’t be at my job today if one of my mentors at Mizzou hadn’t told me I wasn’t a leader. She said “You’re not a leader right now, you’re operating off strong personality. Until you can delegate and create a system where if you’re not there one day the whole thing can keep going, you’re not a leader.”
That was hard to take in but then I recognized she was right. I thought it was cool and noble and great to do all of the jobs – treasurer and secretary and PR. But it’s silly. So I created a 100-page manual so people know how to do programming without me. We also have an app so on any given day the 13 sites around the country can all be running without me because we have those systems in place. That’s really a testament to surrounding yourself with great people who complement you.
BGWP: What does it mean to you to be a black girl with purpose?
Kam: I wouldn’t trade being a black woman for anything in the world. We have this very special set of skills that are unique to black women and we carry it around in this powerful package that we take with us everywhere. When we have a calling which we all do and we execute that calling, our ability is amplified. When we walk in our purpose we’re able to do some amazing things. We have a strength, resolve and panache that is unparalleled.
BGWP: What’s your go to scripture when you find yourself needing encouragement?
Kam: Romans 8:28 – For we know all things work together good for those who love God and are called according to His purpose.
2 Corinthians 5:7 – For we walk by faith and not by sight.
It’s become a phrase [around the office]. I’ll say we’re gonna have to 5 and 7 this. I’m going to have to Romans 8:28.
BGWP: What are some general words of wisdom you’d like to share with our audience?
- It’s nice to be important but it’s more important to be nice.
- You can do anything but not everything.
- If you take care of this time, it will take care of you. That means if you take care of high school right now it will take care of you in college. If you take care of college, it will take care of you in the future. If I clean my house on Sunday it will be clean on Monday. If you take care of this time, it will take care of you.
Want to stay connected with Kam and the Dream Outside the Box family? Follow her on twitter @kampossible and DOTB on Twitter and Instagram at @dreamoutside. Know a K-5 year old who would love a career exploration boxed shipped directly to their door? Consider purchasing a Dream Delivered subscription for them by visiting dreamdelivered.org. Lastly, if you want to get more information on the impact Dream Outside the Box is having on college campuses visit dreamoutsidethebox.org.
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