Erin Dinan, humanitarian and founder of the successful nonprofit, One Sandwich At A Time, is the winner of the inaugural Find Your Pajamas Nonprofit Business Intensive & Pitch Contest held in New York City. She sat down with The Power Threat to discuss nonprofits, her love of travel, and what makes her feel powerful.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in the Northwest suburbs of Chicago. I always thank my parents for our childhood (my sister and me); it was such a great place to grow up. The community was wonderful and some of my closest friends are those I grew up with, but I definitely don’t miss the cold winters! I’m currently living in Manhattan, New York.

Where did you go to school, and what did you study?

I completed undergrad at Auburn University in Alabama. I had the greatest experience in college. I loved my friends, the football world was so fun, and my professors were awesome. I graduated with my Bachelors in Psychology, a minor in Biology, and got my Master of Public Administration at Harvard University.

“A person living on the street is no different than myself; we’ve just had different experiences in life.”

What was your very first job, and what was the most important thing you learned from it?

I started working quite young as a babysitter, but my first “on the books” job was at a carnival when I was about 14 years old. I worked in the the games section. It was not very exciting, but it did give me responsibilities at an early age.  I never stopped working after that. My parents instilled a great work ethic in my sister and me, which we are both grateful for.

Where did your inspiration for One Sandwich at a Time come from?

I’ve always had a strong faith and firmly believe in God and His angels. I was working as a photographer in New York when my mother was battling breast cancer and I said a prayer, asking for guidance on how to create change in the world; I was so worried about my mother at that time that I was also looking for something to throw myself into. I was living in Westchester County at the time and took the MetroNorth train into Grand Central everyday. One day, I purchased a sandwich and while I was racing to catch my train, I made eye contact with a homeless man. I stopped to share my sandwich with him and will never forget the look of gratitude in his eyes. I believe he was the answer to my prayers. I was inspired by seeing how much it made his night and how we have the ability to help someone else find their next meal that I started packing sandwiches and bringing them into the city to hand out. I met George, our co-founder, and he suggested I turn this into a nonprofit organization and here we are 8 years later!

Our mission is to combat hunger and homelessness by encouraging volunteerism and the reminder that we can make a change with our own two hands. The simple action of making a sandwich has a much bigger impact, like the first stone in water that creates that ripple effect. We partner with companies, schools, and local communities to organize sandwich making events and deliver them to those in need at shelters, food pantries, or on the streets.

Personally, I hope we as a society can all focus on humanity, compassion, and kindness, because without it there’s no change in the world. A person living on the street is no different than myself; we’ve just had different experiences in life. 

What are your goals for One Sandwich at a Time for the next few years?

I am really grateful that we won the Find Your Pajamas Nonprofit Business Intensive & Pitch Contest, because Genevieve Piturro (founder of Pajama Program) is mentoring us. It’s helping us so much because right now we’re working on a strategic plan to grow. We have a simple mission that’s very grassroots and we grew quickly, but we didn’t have the time or knowledge to properly lay down a foundation, which is needed. I hope to grow and partner with other organizations to achieve change.  I believe in partnerships to truly make a difference, and I hope for us to become a thriving nonprofit that can expand outside of New York.

What is a challenge you have faced or currently face, and how did you overcome it? 

My biggest challenge is surviving myself. I work for Marriott hotels at night and during the days I work for the organization. My professor during grad school told me that a nonprofit is typically harder than people realize, but I truly love the work we do so it makes it worth it! I’m still learning about the industry and all its processes; One Sandwich at a Time is like a child of mine, and I want it to grow while also taking care of myself. I’ve been trying not to overwork myself; I’m taking time to be with friends and family, stay active, and get more sleep. 

What advice do you have for young entrepreneurs looking to enter the nonprofit industry?

If you have an idea you believe in, go for it!  I heard, and still occasionally hear questions like, “why are you doing this?” and “what will come from this?” Regardless, in my heart I always believed. So, first and foremost, be a dreamer and then the realistic side of “how can I make this work” will follow. 

A logical piece of advice: there are so many resources out there for nonprofit guidance. The Foundation Center is wonderful and there’s Lawyers Alliance in NY, which has pro bono lawyers that help nonprofits lacking in funds.

Outside of your career, what are your hobbies and interests?

Besides One Sandwich at a Time and doing my best to help others, my biggest passion is traveling, something I have to thank my family for. My father was an airline pilot, and my parents introduced traveling to us at an early age. I’ve tried to travel as much as I can. When I graduated college, I took off with a backpack and traveled for 2 years. I lived in Ireland and Scotland and traveled throughout numerous countries. I loved Japan, where I took part in chanting with monks in a temple on Mount Koyasan. I am in love with the world, and I feel it ties into the work I do now, which brings awareness to how we are all related and more similar than we realize. My favorite place in the whole world is Edinburgh, Scotland – I lived there for 6 months and though the cold, rainy weather is intense, there’s cobblestone roads, castles, and magic everywhere. It’s something straight out of a fairytale.

I also love writing (I hope to write a book one day about what I’ve experienced in my travels!), playing piano, swimming, visiting creative coffee shops in New York, and being with my friends and family. 

Is there a product you use often that makes you feel empowered, and why? 

Going to the gym has made me feel so much stronger mentally and physically. I’m so grateful to have discovered an outlet that empowers me like this.

What does it mean for you to be powerful? 

  1. To be comfortable in your skin and to own who you are and how you were made.
  2. Be kind to yourself and others.
  3. Follow your heart.

Photos courtesy of Damion Edwards Photography