Make a Difference in Your Community


Starting a Non-Profit Organization to Support Swimming Scholarships

Joy McGinty

SouthWest Aquatics

Winter Garden, Florida, USA


During the past ten years, I have been building SouthWest Aquatics into a full service aquatics center.  I have wonderful patrons, terrific instructors, incredible staff and fabulous students.   I am very blessed and it was time to give something back to my community. 


In 2002, due to the high number of drowning incidents, I asked several local churches in my area to refer children who needed swimming lessons but could not afford them.  Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I taught 26 disadvantaged children to swim.  I realized that all underprivileged children needed to be trained in the same life-saving skills, as well as the other benefits of swimming, that my clients were learning.    The word spread and the need was great.  I quickly learned that I could not teach them all myself. 


During the next three months, I read every book I could lay my hands on about how to set up a 501(c)(3) organization.  A like-minded friend joined in my quest.  First we set up a corporation under the guidelines of our text books and the IRS requirements.  Then we filled out the IRS paperwork for the 501(c)(3) designation and the state paperwork for permission to collect donations for our mission.  We also carefully followed the guidelines of United Way, so that we could be considered as a United Way provider if we were successful. 


After careful filing and meticulous work, in 2003 we founded The Gift of Swimming, a non-profit organization whose mission is to provide swimming scholarships to the community’s under-privileged, physically or mentally challenged or otherwise disadvantaged.  The goal of The Gift of Swimming scholarship program is to increase the number of skilled swimmers in Central Florida.  Secondary goals are to produce healthier bodies with the physical fitness that swimming has to offer. 



Since then, The Gift of Swimming has partnered with The Central Florida Boys & Girls Club of Pine Hills, The Edgewood Children’s Ranch, Universal Day Care Center for WIC families and Orange County Head Start funding full swimming scholarships to over 1,000 children who could not afford swimming lessons.  Through The Gift of Swimming, we have taught children with special needs such as Downs Syndrome, Autism, blindness, Cerebral Palsy, Muscular Dystrophy, OI (brittle bone disease) and Angelmans Syndrome with amazing results.


While I was able to teach many children on scholarship myself, the number of children that could benefit was limited until we started The Gift of Swimming and could pay instructors to give the same high quality instruction our clients are accustomed to.


Once you have established a very stable swim school business well supported by your customers, you may consider offering free swimming lessons to children in need.  As several of our instructors are trained for special needs, we offer lessons for children with exceptionalities with a written Doctor’s OK as well as underprivileged children.  Once you see the need, you may want to start a non-profit organization to fund scholarships for the needy. 


Tips for starting and running a successful non-profit.


1.  Read everything you can about non-profits.  The book stores and libraries are full of very good resources.  The internet also offers much help.   


2.  Carefully go through all the paperwork.  Make sure you understand all that is necessary.  Consider consulting with an attorney and/or an accountant.  We studied every requirement carefully and have been rewarded since with a very well developed organization. 


3.  Choose committed people for your executive director and board of directors.  I found wonderful folks from my pool deck whose children swam in my program.  They understood our goal of making every child safe around the water and were willing to use their time and money to make that dream a reality. 


4.  Look first to your pool deck for donations.  The letters to our clients produced immediate response and, again, they already believed in our mission for their own children and wanted it for every child.


5.  Start small and grow organically.  As you show good stewardship over donations from individuals, corporate donations will follow.  We are supported by very generous donors who understand the importance of teaching children to swim. 


6.  Once you are comfortable raising funds through individuals and corporations, you might consider taking the step of writing grant requests through foundations and the government.  This step takes a well run organization as many grants require carefully written requests which reflect your mission.  And once approved, require fully documented stewardship of the grant.


Our proudest achievement is our partnership with Orange County Head Start.  Head Start is a national organization whose mission is to give underprivileged children the opportunity for preschool to prepare them for kindergarten.  This has been a magical collaboration.  Each of the 1,600 children are tested often throughout the school year to insure that each of the centers is keeping their curriculum at a high level.  As we taught each child in several centers, the swimming children scored consistently much higher in approaches to learning, early math, language and literacy.  Not only are these disadvantaged children learning life saving swimming skills, they have improved focus in the classroom, improved self-discipline and higher self-esteem.  The Gift of Swimming has touched many children in our community, and most remarkably has touched the donors, instructors and everyone involved in The Gift of Swimming.


Your organization will reflect your mission and accomplishments.  We have completed our fourth year and have reached the requirements of the IRS to remain a 501(c)(3) organization.  Our amazing four years is a testament to the care in organizing, the incredible people who believe in our mission, and the dedication with which we work each day for these wonderful kids.


As you take this very rewarding step, enjoy the journey.  You will meet some incredible people.  Don’t take no for an answer.  Follow your heart and you will change the world for some very deserving disadvantaged children.