Career Shift: Creating an Online Lifeline for Patients

Spurred by an infant's medical ordeal, tech consultant Sona Mehring started CaringBridge.org, a site that links patients with family and friends

By Wendy Schuman
Originally Posted On May 13, 2013

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When Sona Mehring was growing up in tiny Weyauwega, Wis., in the 1960s, she planned to be a nurse, like her mother. But while attending the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire, Mehring discovered a passion for technology and switched her major from nursing to computer science. "In our small town we didn't have computers," she says. "I didn't even understand what they were."

Little did Mehring know that in 1997 her passions for technology and caregiving would intersect to create CaringBridge.org, a successful nonprofit online service based in Eagan, Minn., that lets people facing major health crises set up free websites to stay connected with family and friends.

A First Career in the Corporate World

Here’s how it happened:

After graduation, Mehring worked as a software engineer for General Dynamics in Connecticut then Unisys in Minnesota, developing widely used applications. Feeling bogged down by the corporate bureaucracy, however, she struck out on her own in 1990, opening the Beacon Point Technologies consulting firm. (Mehring and her former husband, Matt, who runs a project management consulting firm, have three sons who've inherited their parents' interest in technology: Nick works as a business analyst and Luke and Jake are computer science majors at college.)

Such connections can be lifesaving.

One user told Mehring that her husband, who was extremely ill with cancer, had been spiraling into depression. While the woman was updating his CaringBridge information, she decided he should read all the entries. She wheeled her husband over to the computer and he spent several hours going through the site. "His despair turned into hope and he started posting there," Mehring says. "He turned his fight around."

The Founder’s Goal

These days, she’s working hard to get the word out about CaringBridge.org. “We reach only 2 to 3 percent of the people who could benefit from the site," she says. "I want to eradicate the statement: 'I wish I'd known about CaringBridge when this or that crisis happened.' That's what's driving me now."

That and thinking about Brighid, who would have turned 16 this year. "This is her legacy," Mehring says.

Mehring’s Advice for Creating a Nonprofit

If you’re interested in starting your own nonprofit venture, Mehring offers these tips:

Bring a for-profit brain to your nonprofit mission. "You need a business plan and a financial model for future sustainability," she says.

File the paperwork to establish your organization as a nonprofit as soon as possible. You’ll need to complete forms to apply for 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service.

"This forces you to think things through," she notes. "If your cause isn’t one that can be pursued as a nonprofit, you’ll find out right away." Making your nonprofit a 501(c)(3) also quickly establishes your ability to get contributions.

Reach out to others with nonprofit experience for advice and input. "I was lucky that in Minnesota we have the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, which has resources to help you get started and grow," Mehring says.

She also put several people with nonprofit experience on her founding board of directors.

Believe in your mission. Mehring acknowledges that it was a leap of faith for her to leave the corporate world to start CaringBridge. "But knowing how important it was to help people through a health crisis gave me the courage to make the change," she says.

Wendy Schuman is a writer and editor specializing in family and social issues. She has worked at Parents, Beliefnet and Mademoiselle.