In 2006, I was a Master’s student at The George Washington University. It was the most amazing experience, as I was working as a lobbyist during the day, and learning about legislative affairs at night. It was an exciting time to be politics… the FDA approved over the counter emergency contraception, and the prochoice community was successfully defending women’s reproductive rights. There was also the negative side, including the Bush Administration’s attacks on basic science. I was given the opportunity to meet with the nation’s top advocates on reproductive health and women’s health research.
I was also becoming a more active member of the Northern Virginia community. I gravitated towards organizations which were focused on helping women and the Black community, and I developed strong relationships, and a passion for making an impact.
When it came time to write my master’s thesis, I decided to write about the lack of Black congresspeople in Virginia, as at the time there had only been two, John Langston and Bobby Scott. My professor suggested that instead of making it a purely academic thesis, I should start an organization to solve the problem. In August 2006, I founded Virginia Leadership Institute (VLI), with the goal of increasing the number of Black elected officials in Virginia. VLI (now Vote Lead Impact) focused on training, tracking, mentoring and networking. We honored Blacks in political leadership and awarded scholarships for those who wanted to pursue leadership development programs. We have operated largely on volunteer labor, and are heavy on individual consultations.
After I had the mission and research to develop a blueprint, I needed a team. I was able to draw upon the relationships I developed in graduate school and in my community work to select an initial board with a diverse backgrounds. We met regularly, and relied on our networks to share our mission and programs.
I made an effort to take classes and join organizations which would teach me more about nonprofit management and fund development.
We are now in the process of growing the foundation outside of Virginia, which has been a crucial step in the life of the organization.
People always ask me how I started VLI and if they should start their own foundation. I recommend that if you are passionate about an issue, there is a need, and you can garner enough support… go for it. I believe that with a business or nonprofit, your goal should be to be so good at achieving your mission, that you eventually go out of business, or you should have an exit plan so others can enter that space. A few lessons I learned along the way:
The cause and the need
There are thousands of organizations working on numerous challenges. When I started VLI, there were very few organizations working in political leadership for African Americans, today there are many. Consider the impact of the current organizations and where there are gaps that you can fill.
There is an African proverb that says that if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together. As with any endeavor, relationships help you get the job done. The relationships that I have developed through my organizational memberships and board seats has been critical to my work. You won’t be able to accomplish much if you go alone. As you grow your foundation, you will want to rely on past relationships and look for people who can fit into your overall plan. They should be honored to invest in your vision.
Financial and in kind resources are a crucial part of any endeavor. I created a membership structure and secured sponsorships from business and political leaders. Over time I developed a passion for fund development and using that as a tool for increased community impact. Look forward to many future blogs on fund development strategies!
With the growth of social media, VLI’s communications strategy has changed since 2006. Initially there was a focus on issuing press releases to news outlets and getting on radio. Today, we use social media and email to share our message, and my TV show on a local independent media station has helped amplify the cause. Adapting to the changing communications methods is one of the most invigorating challenges of being a founder.
Depending on your locality and focus, programming can be a great way to get the message out, attract donors, and accomplish your mission. As you create your initial strategic plan, think about what programming will fill your calendar.
VLI has benefited from an advisory board, boards of directors, and consultants who volunteer their time. We have used different leadership methodologies, including vice president roles divided by tasks, and an executive committee. Our boards have been working boards, as opposed to requiring a large financial donation, yet best practices dictate that boards both govern and support the organization financially. As we grow, we will need to adapt our leadership strategies to a more traditional model. Depending on your target market for recruiting board members, you should also consider the functional role of your board. Prepare all the necessary documents including bylaws, SOPs and financial procedures soon after you decide on your focus. These documents are critical as your foundation grows and faces challenges.
Take a Stand
I have seen organizations struggle with how to stay relevant and demonstrate their engagement with changing current events. The ability to be a voice, thought leader, and expert is by far the most gratifying role of being a founder. Don’t be afraid to be vocal about an issue that affects your mission, in person or online.
Think through your motivations and ability to start an organization. It will require you to grow relationships, develop a structure, produce great programming and give you the opportunity to make an impact! It’s not for everybody, but I can assure you it will be a memorable and life changing experience, and a perfect way to make sure your voice, in collaboration with others, is heard loud and clear.