09/29/2015 10:36 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Starting From Scratch: 2 Alternative Approaches to Building a Non-Profit


When we launched, a for-profit company, we also started a non-profit called The First Fund. The First Fund works with first-grade teachers, who nominate students based on two main criterion: their parents are doing their damndest to build a bright future for their child, and the child is a beneficiary of the National School Lunch Program, meaning they receive their meals at a free or discounted rate. The First Fund is not run nearly as well as I'd like, as often winds up demanding most of my time, but we're getting better each day.

Either way, the goal of The First Fund is to provide scholarships, financial planning, and mentorship to first graders and their parents or guardians. Today, we have 11 scholars, each of whom has their own 529 savings plan that is seeded with a $1,000 scholarship.

But this post isn't about The First Fund, per se. It's actually about what I would do differently if I could turn back time and, once again, start a non-profit alongside a for profit.

Idea One: I Would Partner with an Existing Organization
When we were starting The First Fund, I called a few reps from larger, established nonprofits. The calls didn't go well. The people on the other end of the line didn't understand why we would give scholarships to first graders instead of high schoolers. I was discouraged, so I decided not to spin up The First Fund within an existing organization. Instead, I decided to create the organization from scratch.

If I could turn back time, I would have sought more feedback from existing organizations until I found somebody who "got it." Then, I would have tried to operate under their tax exemptions status instead of spinning up a completely new 501c3. Here's why: The expense, time, and paperwork that comes with establishing and maintaining The First Fund could have all been saved were we to incubate in a larger organization like, for example, The United Way.

Idea Two: I Would Look Harder for Similar Missions and Support with Them Instead of Starting My Own Organization
I started The First Fund from scratch because I was unable to find any similar missions. Turns out, I didn't look hard enough. To take one example, we have a neighboring organization in Wabash County that runs the Wabash County Promise (WCP). I heard about WCP shortly after Fast Company wrote about The First Fund. Our mission and WCP's mission are not identical, but they are pretty close in a lot of their goals.

Had I simply devoted money and resources to WCP, instead of inventing a new wheel to spin, I could have saved myself and the rest of the team many headaches, while still driving the cause we care about forward. The reality is, it's hard to erect infrastructure, build networks, and put volunteers in place. Instead of recreating that difficulty, I could have pledged allegiance to an organization that was already doing it well enough and closely enough.

The Future of The First Fund
All this being said, two years after its launch, The First Fund still has plenty of life in it, and I plan to keep it that way. After all, we've made promises to eleven families, and I plan to keep those promises. To be clear, I am proud of what we are doing and excited for what we will do, but I would be lying if I said we were doing, and have done, things perfectly. This note is not to disparage the thing we built and love so much; it is simply a note to those who want to give back. Nobility is not found in the founding, it's found in the impact. Sometimes, you can work with others to accomplish more that you otherwise could on your own.