Sandy Marshall



University of Southern California, Public Policy with emphasis in Nonprofit Management

University of California-Irvine, Certificate in Nonprofit Management

Having grown up with parents who were teachers active in volunteer work, Sandy Marshall will tell you giving back was part of her upbringing. But it wasn’t until college that she realized she could make a career of it.

Sandy majored in public policy with a nonprofit emphasis at the University of Southern California, and immediately upon leaving college, began working at a nonprofit.

Fast forward a few years. While working as a community relations manager for NASCAR, Sandy began to see the potential for the sport to start making a different kind of impact off the track and in the community. She launched the first national cause campaign for NASCAR in NASCAR Day. Her efforts earned her the role of founder and executive director of the NASCAR Foundation, a children-focused nonprofit offshoot she served in and grew for seven years. 

Three years ago, Sandy left the world of sports, but not her path of nonprofit work. She started Project Scientist, a national initiative which helps girls age four and up pursue opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). The nonprofit aims to change the world’s view of ‘who’ a scientist is and ‘what’ a scientist does.

“Similar to entrepreneurs who have stories of launching a product or starting a company because they had a need that wasn’t being met, I had this need as a parent,” Sandy says. “A lot of my friends had this same need, too. Parents and girls all over have a need for Project Scientist.”

If that wasn’t enough to keep her busy, Sandy also found the time to found SMA Impact, a for-profit agency that helps nonprofit companies with their special impact. It helps budding nonprofits with everything from strategy and partnerships to development, PR and marketing plans. We can’t think of a better woman to inspire you, dear readers, or that special young woman in your life. (Hint: Forward this article to her!)

Rarely will you enter a nonprofit role with a job description that entails all you do …You need to know yourself well enough to be open to changing your job on a dime.

With so many nonprofits, what’s different about Project Scientist? How do you differentiate yourself?

We are the only nonprofit nationally that is just for girls starting as young as age four. I’ve been a fundraiser. I’ve been a funder at NASCAR. I’ve evaluated a ton of nonprofits, so I knew when I was looking at Project Scientist that I did not want to start something that already existed. I searched, and I couldn’t’ find anything aside from a STEM camp in Charlotte.

I also serve on a lot of education boards and found myself often perplexed, wondering why the product we made was good enough for low-income kids but never good enough for paying clientele. They were going somewhere else. I always thought, “How are we changing the paradigm if the product isn’t good for those of us around the table? How is that going to level the playing field?” I wanted a good enough product for my daughter, and good enough that funders would fund us for lower-income girls. It’s a differentiating factor that we don’t just serve a lower-income community and we don’t just serve a wealthy community.

What was your biggest challenge in starting a nonprofit and how did you overcome it?

It’s capacity. I’m unique in that I’ve been working for Project Scientist for free. I gave myself two years to spend time on this and not receive a paycheck. Most nonprofits have a founder who’s interested in a specific issue, but they won’t have marketing or even fundraising skills. When most nonprofits start, they have the need but not the funding. Ours was reversed in that I was able to pay the program staff while I went out and obtained funding to keep the program going, and eventually hire a development staff. I’m a unique founder in that I work in the nonprofit world. I came from this world, so for me, it’s probably different than most.

Let’s talk about that background. How did you start something as large as the NASCAR Foundation?

I began my role at NASCAR as a community relations manager. I quickly noticed the potential we had as a sport to make a unique social impact. NASCAR drivers are unique in that many come from a humble background and want to give back. At the time there was the legacy of the Victory Junction camp and Jeff Gordon Foundation as models for both NASCAR and sports in general. There was this huge potential with NASCAR athletes and tracks to donate tickets to schools, grant Make-A-Wish dreams and to provide space for nonprofit events. My thought was that if we could channel the power of the drivers, teams, tracks and sponsors toward one cause, we could really drive some impact.

How did you build buy-in within the organization?

We had a brainstorming session at the Victory Junction Camp back when it was just a dirt lot with a trailer. For this session, track partners, the Petty Family, sponsors and others came together to answer the question: How can we help create this camp? During our brainstorming session it was [CEO of International Speedway Corporation, Vice Chair of NASCAR and former I Want Her Job Leading Lady] Lesa France Kennedy who came up with the term ‘NASCAR Day.’ Then, in partnership with Victory Junction, we designed the pins and just started it. Originally the thought was that it would be more corporate-driven – on NASCAR Day we’d invite stakeholders to wear their favorite driver’s shirt and the NASCAR Day pin. But, it evolved to become more fan-driven, and fans began buying the pins online and at the track.

It grew so fast and so quickly that more drivers became involved in the promotion. We began holding an annual radiothon at the track in Charlotte on NASCAR Day. Drivers would stop by and raise money for their charity. While we were growing NASCAR Day, we were growing fundraisers separate from NASCAR Day and Victory Junction, and a need to launch a foundation became obvious.

What was the best part of launching the NASCAR Foundation?

Make-A-Wish is an organization that’s amazing to me. Through the NASCAR Foundation we served about 100 kids a year, bringing them to experience the track trip of a lifetime and meet their favorite driver. Those of us in the industry get to do that all the time, but for these kids it’s the chance of a lifetime. It’s very special for all involved – from drivers to NASCAR employees.

With a role so amazing, why did you decide to leave?

When I was at NASCAR I started to try and drive NASCAR into STEM. Working with my team, we realized that STEM is unique to NASCAR. There is no other sport that can say they’re using engineering and technology like we are.

I noticed there were so few women in majors and careers surrounding STEM, and I reflected back on my own experience. I was Pre-Med in college, and then I dropped out. At this same time I had a 4-year-old daughter who was very much into STEM, but I couldn’t find a summer camp for her.

While at NASCAR I worked with a teacher who started a camp that employed STEM techniques and tools. The model worked and word started to spread. When I was getting ready to leave NASCAR, I decided to take a chance and filed as a 501(c)3 and worked with Queens University in Charlotte. After that I served 35 girls in summer camp for four weeks. Then it grew to two sites serving 500 girls each for five weeks. Now, this fall, we started a year-round program for 200 girls. We’re growing into the LA market with Cal-Tech. I’m proud Project Scientist has hit a nerve with girls, parents and funders alike.

What’s been your biggest surprise in leaving a big company to launch your own nonprofit?

I definitely miss the resources of NASCAR – from office space, to a marketing and PR department, to a creative agency, to an accounting department. When you have your own nonprofit, you’re doing it all. If you’re looking to start a nonprofit, make sure you recruit good board members. Get these advocates in your corner who will help you do your work. It’s not sexy in the beginning. I have executives coming to camp to serve snacks or do our accounting. It’s paramount you’re passionate about your cause so you can help build it up and immediately move these members into a more strategic and advisory role.

What does your typical day look like? How do you prioritize your schedule?

With two upstarts at the same time, I’m constantly testing and tweaking my model. In the next few months I hope to have more time to look at this model, reflect on it and create a higher-level through process for both.

The benefit of being my own boss is I can schedule my day as I want. When I was at a corporate job I was traveling about 75 percent of the time, and I rarely was able to participate in any of my kids’ events. I now know I can go, but then I have to make those hours up in the evening. Then again, when you own your own business, you’re also more motivated. When you work until 2 a.m. it’s your business, and you don’t feel bad about it. It’s actually motivating.

My typical day is not typical. I wake up at 5 a.m. to get some work in before bringing my kids to school. Then I leave my office early to pick up my kids. Throughout the day I could be meeting with funders and clients – running from restaurant to coffee shop to their places of business. As an entrepreneur, you don’t really have a lot of time. During my first year, I worked all the time. It was rare to have a full Sunday where I was ‘off’, and now – a year and a half later – I’m trying to get my weekends back by hiring staff to keep things going.

What does it take for someone to enter the nonprofit field?

Don’t go into the nonprofit world to get rich. If you need to make a certain amount of money – and a high income – do something else. You can always raise or donate money and still make an impact. With a nonprofit you go in with a mission, and that’s the priority – not getting rich. If you have huge debt and college bills, go into a job that makes more money and volunteer on the side. On the other hand, if you’re open to struggling a bit and entering a field driven on passion, this is the job for you. Just keep your expenses in check so you can afford to do this. Most of the time, if you’re entering into a nonprofit job you will make $30-$35k, and your salary won’t grow very quickly.

You also need to be someone who is open to learning. When you go into a nonprofit, you will get a ton of work thrown at you. This also means you’re going to get a lot of experience. It’s also a way for you to learn more about yourself while you quickly gain new skills.

And find a mentor. There are so many nonprofits out there. Some are good and some are not. You may be working at a nonprofit where you’re not getting the most experience, so having someone more seasoned whom you can trust to help evaluate those things helps.

What qualities does it take for someone to be successful as a nonprofit worker?

Because nonprofits lack resource capacity, you must be a self-starter. You need to be someone who will roll up her sleeves and do whatever it takes. Rarely will you enter a nonprofit role with a job description that entails all you do. Your project may be cancelled. A gala may need more volunteers. You may be doing data entry for two weeks straight. Even though you were hired as a manager, those are all jobs you might be doing. You need to be the kind of person who’s comfortable with that. You need to know yourself well enough to be open to changing your job on a dime. You can’t be ‘above’ doing those things that your friend in the corporate world might think she’s ‘above.’ Be comfortable with those things, and remember, they’re all for the greater good of the mission.

What would you say to a woman considering a STEM-based career?

Go get a mentor who is successful in the STEM field, because you’re going to run into challenges, whether it’s in your major or in your career. As a society we are not evolved enough to support women in STEM. If you’re in something like mechanical engineering you will be one of only two women in your classes. You will most likely not have a female professor. You will really need this mentor to talk to about how they went through some of their coursework. When I was in NASCAR, a lot of times I was the only female in the boardroom. It’s similar with STEM studies. So, work with a community you’re not used to. Get those skills in your toolbox that you need until we evolve more as a society.

Your mentor doesn’t have to be a woman either. It can be a man. I’ve had the same mentor for 10 years. He’s male. Sometimes you need a man’s perspective on how to present things and persuade others. Actually, go get a man and a woman to be your mentor.

What advice do you have for a woman who’s looking to launch her own nonprofit?

You will give up your life – completely – for a couple of years. Women have a tendency to be perfectionists, and I’ve had to learn to let go of that. You can’t do it all – especially when you’re starting a company.

Also, if you’re looking to grow your career at an already-established nonprofit, know this: most nonprofit executives are retiring in the next 5 to 10 years, so there’s a huge opportunity for workforce development. This means there will be job security for someone with nonprofit skills, and as a nonprofit executive myself, I know it’s something we’re looking at as a field. Millennials are here to make a change; a nonprofit is the perfect opportunity to do that.