From High Heels to Flip Flops

Written by: Valerie Handunge, Founder, Malini Foundation

When I told my parents that I was going to “take a break from my career” to start a non-profit, there was mad chaos in the house.

“How will you survive without a job?” they questioned. “I’ll use my savings,” I replied.

“How long will you be away?” they asked. “About a year.”

Even my college thesis advisor, a professor of human geography and a theorist on poverty, whose teachings has influenced my approach with the Malini Foundation, expressed concerns. If he’s “nervous for me,” as he put it, I probably should think twice about this decision.

However, when I told my colleagues at work of my unorthodox plan most of them responded saying, “I’ve always wanted to do [fill in the blank] but never got around to it.”

With that I said to myself (yes, sometimes I do that):

“You live one life, so don’t let your passion fall through your fingers!”

But, I thought, I’m going to give this one shot and that shot better kick ass because if I don’t succeed in one year, I’m not trying again.

Rather than studying up on traditional non-profit management, in which I have no experience, I decided to tackle this like a consulting project, which would make it far less intimidating to me.

At the Malini Foundation, we would think like a business, with your products being our programs on girls’ education and women’s livelihoods. Our approach would be evidence-based with strategic decision-making processes.

One of my mentors and now board members told me: “Like restaurants, many small non-profits fail due to a lack of funding.” So sustainability would be critical. Our operations should be lean, environmentally conscious and bring in some revenue so we can be self-sufficient (hence the dual-purpose of the women’s livelihood program).

I also feel strongly about the effective use of public donations (when we get them!) 100% will be committed to our on-the-ground programs. To do this and be a successful organization, we would need a strong partnership model and pro bono program.

A part of our mission is to encourage better international relations between the U.S. and developing countries. What better way to do that than by engaging college students who could also help with our research and administrative needs?

I reached out to the student programs coordinator at my alma mater, Penn State University’s Schreyer Honors College. I shared my plans for the Malini Foundation and for what’s today our Global Fellowship Program. Incredibly, she remembered that I had expressed my interest in such a project 10 years ago while reporting to her as a scholar assistant. Before we know it, our first partnership was formed!

With our Global Fellowship Program we provide internship, applied-research and consulting opportunities to Schreyer scholars. We work with students from non-technical majors with a passion for humanitarian causes and instill vital analytical problem solving skills.


I continued to travel and work on my last client project but with the support of our interns and a few dedicated volunteers we were able to get a lot of foundational planning completed. Our strategic plan included a situational analysis of potential regions to start our project, an evaluation of similar leading practice organizations, a financial pro forma, an accountability-based governance model and a partnership assessment. We even held our first advocacy event showing the inspirational film Girl Rising on International Day of the Girl.

In the meantime, we were accepted as a Development Partner with Advocates for International Development and they connected us to the law firm Mayer Brown. They helped us apply for 501(c)(3) status and developed several policies including our code of ethics.


It was a hectic six months trying to balance my real job and working late into the evenings on the Malini Foundation but I felt less nervous knowing that we were starting on solid ground.

On my last day at work, I was running through the airport to catch my flight back home. I all but twisted my ankle as the heel of my black pumps broke off. I pulled out my flip flops and rushed to the gate. As I hastily settled into my seat I realized that literally and figuratively I had traded in my Cole Haans for a pair of Havanas. This has to be a good sign for a new beginning!

For more on the Malini Foundation, read Valerie’s previous blog post on Girls’ Globe