Zibby Owens: Hi, everyone. Today, I'm releasing a short bonus episode with Nora McInerny who’s the host of podcast “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” and the author of several books including No Happy Endings: A Memoir. Nora was in town. My podcast with her which you should listen to has already come out, but I didn't get a chance to meet her in person. Today, she came over. We talked about her nonprofit called Still Kickin, which I wanted to hear more about, which she founded after her husband passed away. I hope you enjoy our little talk. I was so inspired by Still Kickin. I'm definitely going to be donating to help other families who are going through these horrible things in their lives. Enjoy.
I'm here with Nora McInerny, the author of No Happy Endings, the host of “Terrible, Thanks for Asking,” and all-around rockstar. We’re talking today about Nora’s nonprofit, Still Kickin, which she launched after her husband Aaron passed away. I wanted to hear a little more about that because we already have a podcast about her writing, which was great. Thank you.
Nora McInerny: Still Kickin is a retail-based nonprofit, which means we primarily are a retail company. We sell these shirts and many other items. Most of them say Still Kickin, which is a shirt that you're holding, this kelly green shirt with weathered-looking letters that's a tracing of Aaron’s favorite shirt. Is that my phone? No, it’s your phone.
Zibby: It’s going to be one of those days. I'm just going to have a day like this. I woke up and I had a feeling I was going to have a day like this.
Nora: Honestly, this is perfect. [laughs] This is so perfect.
Zibby: That was my phone vibrating while filming. Amazing. [laughs]
Nora: It really is perfect.
Zibby: Lest you think anything can go right, and it’s a thousand degrees in here.
Nora: One time I was on stage with my iPad, which is how I read the script for “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” live. One of the kids FaceTimed me. I was like, no. [laughs] How did I forget to turn off that? I don't know. That's perfect. That's wonderful.
Zibby: Just showing you how unprofessional I can be.
Nora: Look, I think this is very professional. This is the reality of being a professional who also has a life. Some days are better than others. Some days are neater than others.
Zibby: I'm waiting for my daughter to come in post-tantrum also. That will happen next.
Nora: That door’s going to get kicked in.
Zibby: The thing will fly open. Just wait for that.
Nora: I can't wait. Other people's kids’ tantrums are nothing to me. I'm like, okay. I get how you do it. Okay. My kids’ tantrums, the stress just shoots out of my head. I'm like, “What is wrong with you?” I’ll take that tantrum if you want. If you want to tag me in, I’ll go up there. I’ll handle that tantrum.
Zibby: She would probably love that.
Nora: She’ll be like, “There's a strange woman in my house.” [laughs]
Zibby: It would jolt her right out of that tantrum.
Nora: You're like, “Anytime you misbehave, this giant midwestern woman is going to go into your room and ask you questions about your feelings, honey.”
Zibby: I have to say, you talk about your height so much that I was expecting someone so tall that I wouldn't even -- I was like, what shoes could I possibly wear to meet her? when I met you the other night. You're just a normal tall person.
Nora: I think so. I'm six feet. Some people are literally shocked by that, so I present it before we meet in real life. Honestly, sometimes people are physically startled. It happens when I walk in New York. People will be like, “Oh, god.” At an airport, a little boy looked up and he goes, “Oh. Sorry, sir.” Looks up and is like, “You're just very big.” I was like, “I know. That's okay. Also, that's very polite.” Excuse me, sir.
Zibby: No one’s apologizing to me. They’ll just knock me over.
Nora: I know. What were we talking about?
Zibby: It’s a retail nonprofit.
Nora: There we go.
Zibby: Kelly green shirt. Actual stitching.
Nora: Yes. That's the first thing that we ever made. Aaron had been wearing this shirt. In my basement -- Aaron died in 2014 -- I have three giant bins, giant, not just the normal size Tupperware bin, the giant extended, bigger than my arm span.
Zibby: Body bag.
Nora: Yeah, filled with T-shirts. I have them all cataloged in a Google document. I have them all air -- you know what I mean, right? I'm going to do the symbol.
Zibby: I get it.
Nora: Vacuum sealed. That's it. They're all put away. They're saved for Ralph and even the big kids if they want them when they get a little bit older. Aaron loved T-shirts.
Zibby: They were his T-shirts?
Nora: His T-shirts. He had filled our dresser with T-shirts. When I moved in with him, he was like, “You can have six hangers, and that's about it.” [laughs] He had T-shirts that he cared about a lot that I was not allowed to borrow. The Still Kickin one was one of those T-shirts. It’s so thin. He had bought it at a secondhand store when he was young and healthy. He wore it ironically in the heyday of ironic shirts, which I think is coming back, honestly, which is sort of weird. Everything comes back, but the early 2000s, wearing ironic T-shirts from thrift stores. Still Kickin was one of them. The original one is clearly handmade for somebody's grandpa’s hundredth birthday or something. It is really, really -- it’s sweet.
He was wearing that the day that he had a seizure, which is the day that we found out that he had a brain tumor. We thought that was so funny. I remember walking into the ER. He was like, “Hey,” pointing at his shirt. I'm like, “What a shirt. What a great shirt. Let's bust you out of here.” It turns out it was really serious, what was happening to him. We didn't know. We were so oblivious. This was Aaron’s idea. All of it was Aaron’s idea. Almost right away when he found out he had cancer, he was like, “I want to recreate this shirt. I want to sell it. I want to give the money to people who really need it.”
We had amazing insurance. Still, it was really hard for us to make it through financially. Most Americans don't have five hundred dollars saved for an emergency. Emergencies are way more than five hundred dollars, typically. These things that can destroy you physically might first destroy you financially and therefore also emotionally. Money is tied up in so many things. Aaron didn't have life insurance. He was thirty-one when he got sick. We weren’t married. We had this whole community of internet strangers and friends and family who made us a safety net. I was never going to really hit the ground. Not everybody has that. I got this money which was Aaron’s salary for a year. I could pay off all of his medical debt. I could survive for a little while without working. I would, at night, spend a lot of time clicking through different GoFundMe’s, all these fundraising sites. I would see all these people whose network was completely tapped out, who couldn't tap their network to pool eight hundred dollars together. I would just get drunk and go and fill those.
Zibby: That's so nice.
Nora: It was very nice. The money went very quickly. I probably should've saved more of it for my life. It felt to me like I didn't deserve it. I didn't need it the way some other people needed it. I had to do something. Aaron had always wanted to turn this ironic T-shirt into something that could help other people. We knew even before he died how lucky we were. We would go to the hospital and look around and think, oh, we’re the lucky ones. Aaron has stage IV incurable brain cancer, and we are doing better than everyone in this waiting room.
That was 2011, 2012. The internet was a different place. The idea of making a shirt and selling it, that was a good idea. The implementation in 2012 was -- Squarespace wasn’t a thing. Shopify was not as easy as it is now. The idea of having inventory in our basement while we’re doing chemo and radiation and having a baby, all these things, it just never happened. Right before Aaron died, we contacted Cotton Bureau, which is a wonderful print-on-demand site. It’s really curated. They do design-oriented stuff. It’s not like just anyone can throw a T-shirt up. To have your shirt printed, you have to have a minimum of twelve orders. I thought, there's six people in my immediate family. There's four in yours. Then maybe two of our friends will order one. That’ll feel good. You get half the money, basically, from the sales. We sold four hundred. The orders are only open for a two-week period. It’s a preorder system. Then they brought it back, and we sold eight hundred. Then they brought it back, and we sold three thousand. It was more orders than they had ever had. They didn't even know how to wholesale all of these.
Zibby: Did you have enough shirts?
Nora: Not at first. They were like, oh, god. How are we going to do this? Aaron died. That idea was on hold for all the reasons that you can think of. Maybe four months, five months later, I turned in my first book. Jay Fanelli who runs Cotton Bureau, a wonderful man, he had contacted me. He said, “I will print this shirt a million times if you want me to, but this could be something more. When you're ready for it to be something more, just tell me. I’ll do whatever I can to help you.” He really meant it, and he really did. He gave us his printer, his warehouse. He showed us their whole business model. He was like, “Now you go do it. You go do it with this design.”
We did. My friend Lindsey came over. We made a website. I made it an LLC, not that hard to do, turns out. We just started. We started with my friend who I’d met through the internet who also had a brain tumor, my friend Scott. We put it out there. We were like, “If you buy a shirt, you will be supporting Scott. At the end of this month, we’re going to give Scott and his family of four children, we’re going to give them the money.” You buy a shirt, you help a person out. I did not know if that would catch on. I didn't know if people would really get it. They did. That first month we gave Scott’s family a thousand dollars. Now we give people almost five thousand dollars a month. If we can, we do bonuses at the end of year too for everybody. Every month, we pick a person. They can be going through anything. It does have to be cancer. It does not have to be brain cancer. We give them a no-strings-attached financial grant. Whatever they want to spend it on, whatever they need to spend it on, that is their business.
Zibby: Not to sound like a total skeptic, do you meet the families?
Nora: They're nominated by somebody who cares about them. We do some online research. Then we talk to them.
Zibby: You read in the Post about people who are scamming. How devasting that would be for somebody to go in and steal that money.
Nora: I know. I do take a pretty generous approach to it, or a surprisingly un-skeptical approach to it for somebody who knows just how crappy life can be and how crappy people can be. I do think that there's something about the community that has been built around Still Kickin that doesn't make me skeptical in that way, if that makes sense.
Zibby: You should do on your site -- this is a huge thing. You know how there's a DonorsChoose? Have you heard of DonorsChoose where you support different classrooms for teaching-type projects?
Zibby: Obviously, there are scattered GoFundMe -- maybe this already exists, but families, like just for families who need support. Do they have that already, like an online marketplace? You could go in. Let's say I have a particular attachment to breast cancer or something. I can see a family struggling with breast cancer. They need X amount of money. Maybe I go in and then direct... We’ll start that on the site.
Nora: It’s a good idea. Direct grants. There we go. There's a lot of need. A lot of it is tied to really specific causes. People do that really well, obviously.
Zibby: Yeah, but you never get that satisfaction. If I give to the BRCA1 -- not that that's not also important. It is for research and all this stuff. Sometimes you don't get to interact. You get to see how rewarded and grateful. Your efforts are actually making a big difference. That's different than knowing intellectually they're making a difference but not seeing it as much.
Nora: It is. When your life is completely falling apart, you have so much to do. There's so much going on. I remember people sending me links to organizations that would help you pay your bills or this and that. It required so much paperwork that I was like, I can't. I don't even know where I would find that stuff. I don't know. I want to make it as easy as possible for people who are living in crisis mode to get some relief. For a lot of families, getting four thousand, five thousand dollars is a lot. That is a ton of money. That is enough to pay a couple months of their mortgage and get a little bit of breathing room, which is wonderful. That's all you need, is a little bit of breathing room.
Zibby: Do you have a list of families that you want to help?
Nora: Yeah. We have a lot of families that we want to help. We have a lot of families.
Zibby: How many months ahead do you have? Is that how you do it?
Nora: It’s not as if we have the whole year planned out because we do want to make it --
Zibby: -- more immediate?
Nora: Right. We have a whole committee that's dedicated to reading those things, doing a selection based on a subjective but also semi-objective criteria of immediacy and need and their own little formula of what it is. Then we have a separate fund that can meet smaller needs more immediately that we call the Oprah fund, the “We’ll take care of it” kind of fund. Maybe you don't need a huge grant, but you need something right now. We have a fund that helps us do that and meet those more immediate needs in a quieter way. You're not the Still Kickin Hero of the Month, but we can help you with that kind of relief.
Zibby: If there are people listening who think this is amazing the way I do and want to help, maybe they don't need a T-shirt, how can they help?
Nora: You can sign up to be a Still Kickin sidekick which is a monthly recurring donation, which is always helpful for any nonprofit that you believe in. To have some sort of recurring donation revenue is very, very helpful. You can make a big, old donation. I'm not going to tell you how much money to give. I'm really bad at the money part, asking for it or anything like that. You could host a Still Kickin event. We have a lot of them all over the country. We have Still Kickin sessions which are basically panel discussions about what it means to survive in this world, to be still kickin’ in a world where bad things happen and life is really hard. We've done those based around finances, based around mental health, based around mindfulness. We have a panel of experts. They're ticketed events. That money helps support the organization. You can come to Minneapolis on July 15th for our fourth birthday party at Bauhaus Brew Labs, which is very fun. Those are all the things, I think.
Zibby: Awesome. Tell your website for Still Kickin.
Nora: Stillkickin.co, not .com. Stillkickin.com is an old man’s bluegrass band.
Zibby: Maybe they should play at the party.
Nora: I don't think so. Once they sent us email. They were like, “People are confusing our website for your website.” Welcome to the internet, dude. [laughter] Sorry. Stillkickin.co.
Zibby: Thanks for telling us more about it. It’s so amazing what you're doing in helping other people. Your big heart is shining through. It’s amazing. Love it.
Nora: Thank you. I didn't have that pull towards other people, honestly. When I was in my twenties, I don't think anything ever touched me emotionally, really. I did not have true empathy for anything.
Zibby: I don't believe that.
Nora: Either it was happening to me and then I cared, or I felt pity. I could feel bad for somebody. It felt like all of the world’s problems were too big. What could I possibly do? The fundraiser that supported our family when Aaron died, the average amount that was donated was twenty dollars. People doing one small thing added to up basically saving my son and I. We were okay because of that money in a way that we definitely wouldn't have been, or I would've been back at my cubicle way before I was mentally or emotionally ready to do that. I probably would've gotten fired because I was not functional. That money which I think to most people who donated and moved on with their day, they didn't even really think about it. I have this very, very deep gratitude for all of those people. That was just a small thing that they did. Maybe they don't remember doing it. It truly saved us. All of the small things that you do throughout the day, throughout your life, they really, really do help people. The world’s problems are too big for us to solve on our own. I know that you can do very small, immediate things for people. It affects them. It helps.
Zibby: I want to be a sidekick. I'm going to be a sidekick. I'm in.
Nora: Be a sidekick. You get some pretty cool stuff as a sidekick.
Zibby: I don't even need the stuff.
Nora: I know. I never need this stuff either.
Zibby: I like the stuff, but I'm just saying...
Nora: You know when you donate to public radio and they're like, “If you donate now, you'll get --
Zibby: A tote bag.
Nora: So many totes bag, or you'll get a clock radio or something. I don't need the clock radio. I appreciate the thing. I’ll do it. Some people really need the thing.
Zibby: The thing is nice too. Thank you again, Nora.
Nora: The thing is nice. Thank you, Zibby.