Who is Validating You?

If I created a list of the five most important things for a young, nonprofiit startup founder, this would be tied for #1:

Third-party validators.

And let me put an even finer point on it: Third-party validators with access to philanthropists.

This was the make or break for my organization in the earliest days.  We were extremely fortunate to have the confidence of one of the best social entrepreneurs around, Alan Khazei — co-founder and former CEO of City Year and Be The Change.  He was so fired up about what we were doing that he was willing to make introductions to potential funders.

Very importantly, he also did more than just make intros — he consistently helped us in a ton of ways.  To potential funders, this says: someone I trust is keeping an eye on things and that’s important because I don’t have time.

And it paid off.  Just a few months into the startup period, Alan helped us secure two meetings with two incredible leaders and philanthropists.  We didn’t have a big strategic plan or every question answered.  We had a clear need and a clear way to pilot our solution.  A few weeks later we had $5k and then a little bit after that we had a 1:1 challenge grant for $50,000.

After the second meeting, Josh (who gave the challenge grant) told Alan specifically that he didn’t have time to work with us on a regular basis and asked Alan if he did.  Alan said yes, joined our board, stayed involved (still is), and Josh issued the challenge grant.  We matched it 82 days later.

In a video interview, Josh describes similar situations.  He says:

A social entrepreneur is doing a startup, and unless you have the time to do due diligence yourself or unless you have someone else who’s going to be involved to watch over it for you, don’t donate.

You can watch the entire video and others on a great site, GiveSmart.org. (scroll down to the video titled: “No foundation, no staff: Josh Bekenstein leverages knowledge from trusted philanthropists and experts”)

That leaves the question — who is the third-party validator who can open philanthropic doors?  It’s hard.  For my organization, we’re trying to build a grassroots movement to make national service programs like AmeriCorps a political priority.  So Alan, as a key stakeholder of AmeriCorps, made a lot of sense.  And many others have followed his lead in helping us.  And that has been invaluable.

Trusted relationships are the most important currency.  And Alan (and many, many others) gave us a lot of their “relationship capital.”

Unsolicited advice for young nonprofit founders: find the people who care about your success, have access to philanthropists, and earn their trust…quickly.

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