The Founder and Being Yourself

I’m not your stereotypical non-profit founders. I’ve got long hair, curse words fly out of my mouth constantly, I listen to the Grateful Dead and Metallica loud, I live for taking risks, and am highly emotional. I don’t willingly go to church, nor do I believe in a higher power. I’m a cynic through and through. That is who I am. With that said, I work very hard to stay idealistic, and I believe anyone can make a difference in the world if they give it a go.

When people get to know me, they inevitably realize that I’m not what they were expecting. I’m constantly reminded of this fact. “Wow, you’re not what I was expecting.” Really? Well, okay, good to know.

I’m just a normal guy, and I see no reason why the stereotypical “good people” on this planet should have a monopoly on helping those in need. The world needs all types of people doing development work; even me, even you.

During the organization’s early years, I felt in order to grow a successful non-profit organization, I had to conform to a very specific kind of founder. Soft spoken, bleeding heart, and dare I say, bordering on believing in some kind of higher power. For that reason, I spent the first five years looking at other successful NPO founders to try and follow in their footsteps. This strategy largely failed.

One person that I looked to for inspiration was John Wood. John founded Room to Read, a successful literacy organization based out of San Francisco with offices throughout the world. At a distance, I saw him as a founder to aspire to become. I spent an inordinate amount of time watching what he was doing and then bringing that into how I presented myself to others. What I didn’t notice was that I was slowly losing myself in the process. Not only that, my organization was suffering because of it. The reason that this strategy failed was because I’m a fundamentally different person than John Wood; and that is a very good thing.

Having the confidence to bring what makes you “you” into your organization is critically important. Why? Because the founder matters. You matter. Your team will look to you and model how you respond to challenges and opportunities that your organization will face. More times than not, at least initially, donors will support “you” the founder; not your organization’s programs, mission or vision. That, in-and-of-itself, is a heavy burden to carry, one that all founders truly understand. For that reason alone, it was and still is, so difficult for me to put myself out there for others to see.

Staying true to who I am has not been easy. Everyday since 2006, someone has told me how I should run my organization, how our programs should improve, or how I simply do not understand (insert country, culture, program, issue, whatever). Every day; via email, in person, on the phone, or sometimes even using a condescending voice (I love those helpful conversations). Even after all these years, this continues to wear me down. My only advice is to “listen” to these voices, but filter liberally.

Once I stopped trying to be everything for everyone, and got back to being myself, that’s when my organization began to really do great things. And, that’s the goal, right? To do something incredible. The goal is to build something great, something unique, something to solve a problem, and to help people in their daily lives. That’s the goal I had years ago, and that’s still my goal.

The organization you create will be a reflection of yourself. Don’t be afraid of that fact. Get beyond it, and get started.