Real Life Center: Cathy Berggren’s Advice For a Successful Nonprofit

Cathy Berggren is the heart and soul of the Real Life Center, an incredible local nonprofit organization, but she would beg to differ. She is the Executive Director and has been with them since the doors opened 20 years ago. If you asked Cathy, she would say that the Real Life Center is all about community which includes the volunteers, the staff, the donors and those they serve. At the Real Life Center, they have figured out that the key to a successful nonprofit is the people and serving them as you would want to be served, no matter the circumstances.

The Real Life Center helps those who are experiencing a difficult time such as a job loss, a divorce, death or other life issue. In addition to providing the initial needs of food and clothing to families, the Real Life Center also offers educational programs to help people reach their goals and be a catalyst for change.

Cathy says, “Most of us want to help our neighbors in need, but we don’t know how. At the Real Life Center, we provide a safe place to be a neighbor, both to give and also to receive in a time of need. This neighbor-to-neighbor approach is the core of who we are, and it lends itself to treating people with dignity and respect. If we want to walk alongside someone to help them get out of their situation, it is important for them to understand they are worthy, capable and empowered to take responsibility for their lives. We believe that is the way God made us!”

The Real Life Center works with the community to help the community. They have over 300 volunteers who serve regularly, either sorting clothing and food, or picking fruit in the incredible orchard where they grow fruit for families in need. The orchard and garden is run entirely by volunteers who tend to the gardens, pick produce, and pack food. The Real Life Center currently has five part-time and five full-time employees on their amazing team.

Their educational classes are taught by volunteers—experts in the community—who donate their time to teach a variety of subjects such as cooking/nutrition, finances, family and relationship issues, and emotional and spiritual well-being. These classes provide life skills and confidence, and create community. Cathy says, “The classes birthed out of the understanding that isolation and poverty go hand in hand. If we can keep people connected and supported, they improve their chance to rise above poverty. 53 percent of all Americans are faced with poverty at some point in their lives due to the unexpected. People who never thought they would have to ask for assistance find themselves in a situation where we can help.”

The Real Life Center has additional programs to meet the needs of seniors and create a community for them. They also provide school supplies and backpacks, and offer backpack buddies for weekend meals to students in need.

Neighbor-to-neighbor, helping one another by putting yourself in another’s shoes, that is the key to a successful non-profit organization and the community at The Real Life Center seems to understand this immensely.

Cathy believes these guidelines can be applied to any nonprofit to help lead to success:


  • Before you start, take the time to understand what the real needs are and what is currently being done. If you determine there are gaps, and you are ready to jump in, have a clear direction on your strategy to meet the needs. This allows you to stay aligned to your mission and stay focused on your strategy to achieve success. Once you have laid the groundwork, communicating your mission well is key. Casting a strong vision will engage others to want to join you in making a difference!
  • Don’t be afraid to do it differently! When meeting unmet needs, doing it differently may be what incites the change to occur. Sometimes, we just need an objective person who truly cares enough to encourage us to see with a different perspective and to challenge us to change.
  • Do everything with excellence. This not only builds credibility, it creates trust. This includes setting up your basic legal structure and building a strong foundation such as keeping records, how you steward your donations, and management of your finances and your team. Always be willing to be accountable and to reevaluate what you are doing on a regular basis to keep improving.
  • Never lose sight of genuinely valuing your people—your team of staff and volunteers, clients, and those who partner with you and support you—which will create loyalty and mutual respect. One of my favorite comments I often hear from a client is, “Please call me if I can ever do anything to help you.”
  • Be generous, keeping the big picture in mind. Too often, we become so focused on our own organizations we forget that there are many others out there doing good. If we are willing to work together we can make an even larger impact—together. I am grateful for the many churches, businesses, civic groups, schools and other organizations that we partner with for the greater good of those we serve. Being willing to help others, ultimately helps your organization to be better too!
  • Define what success looks like, and develop some critical success factors. If we don’t measure ourselves how do we know how much good we are doing? Determine benchmarks you wish to measure each year, and challenge yourself to do it better each year.