Partnering Towards Success in Social Entrepreneurship

Guest article by Gene Miller, COO of Families United in Educational Leadership (FUEL). Part of The Next Women Social Entrepreneurship Theme.

It’s not often that one can say this about a job, but I feel truly blessed to be working with Families United in Educational Leadership (FUEL). From the day I stepped through the door, it has been a thrilling (though not always easy) ride. I truly believe that FUEL is making a positive difference in the lives of many low-income families and I am delighted to be part of it.

 

To understand why I am so excited about being here, you need to know a bit about my background and a bit about FUEL. By my early 30s (hard to believe that was about 25 years ago!), I had a successful career as an executive vice president in the finance industry. In banking, I experienced the excitement of big sales and large-scale transaction closings. When my bank was consolidated with another one, I was able to parlay my experience into a series of senior-level consulting assignments that allowed for more flexibility while raising my three children during the following 14 years.

Most of this consulting consisted of strategy, finance, real estate development, and personnel/recruiting for a range of corporate and nonprofit organizations.

 

I found that creating programs, building partnerships, and winning grant funding for nonprofits provided the same thrill as my previous career, but with an important added element.

Since these victories serve the community’s greater good – impacting the lives of hundreds of individuals, rather than just an organization’s bottom line – I enjoy an even deeper sense of fulfillment. It is very satisfying to help influence and build ways for people to help themselves. For me, creating the infrastructure to educate, help, and inspire people is the logical extension of my professional career.

 

During this period, I consulted to FUEL founder Bob Hildreth during the organization’s conceptual stage. I met him while founding and directing an innovative $4.5 million public/private fundraising campaign to build and refurbish the athletic fields in my hometown. He asked me to help launch his new nonprofit by taking charge of personnel, strategy, partnerships, and fiscal development. In 2009, I was appointed FUEL’s inaugural COO, which is FUEL’s senior management role, a position I continue to hold.

 

FUEL was founded based on the notion that low-income families can and do save money, and Bob wanted to encourage these families to save toward higher education so that their children would gain that important foothold in American society. Research – and common sense – tell us that youth who are supported by their parents in their college ambitions fare much better than their peers whose parents are more detached. FUEL is creating and building a new market segment in the nonprofit world: parent engagement via asset development.

 

But how to build an organization around this idea was not at all clear from the outset. Since the concept was so new, we didn’t have any roadmap to guide us.I convinced Bob that the best way to start was to take time to talk with key representatives of the potential audience and asked them for advice.

 

One of the most important lessons I learned from FUEL was that most people, even potential competitors, are eager to offer the benefit of their wisdom and experience if you take the time to ask.

We started to build the FUEL model based on superb advice and input from a lot of people.

 

  • From bankers, we learned how some old-fashioned tools like Christmas savings accounts could serve as a mechanism to facilitate and inspire family savings.

  • From higher education leaders, we learned that there are all kinds of money available to low-income families, but it is so hard to access that it might as well not be there. One of FUEL’s key teachings to our parent participants is how to access this college funding

  • From directors of youth-oriented community agencies, we learned that they very much wanted and needed to connect with parents, but it was outside the scope of their core competencies, so if FUEL could find a way to facilitate that relationship, they would be eager to engage with us.

  • From directors of other nonprofits, we learned about the unique environment of the nonprofit sector, with its own fiscal, management, HR, and other needs and habits.

  • From potential funders, we learned about what the funding environment is like and that it is important to start, not by asking for money, but by seeking strategic guidance.

The key to FUEL’s approach is that everyone is a partner: parents, banks, funders, agencies, community colleges, etc. While this may seem like common sense, it is less common than you might think. After Bob and I did a presentation at the National College Access Network national conference, one person said, “I’ll never look at partnerships the same way again!".

 

I was pleased that she’d gotten the message, but a bit surprised that something so obvious to me would be so radical to someone else. Of course organizations start with partnerships. At FUEL, we decided it made no sense to duplicate what was already being done. (We all know there is a mountain of unmet and unresolved needs.) Instead, we looked for intersections with future partners, a mosaic approach if you will. Everything else – creating the logistics, building working relationships, developing the funding strategy and communications plan, coordinating human resources –falls out from that.

The initial idea is the rough diamond. It is burnished and made brilliant by the input of those who will be most affected by the initiative.

At just four years old, FUEL is the poster child for this approach. We have raised more than $1 million, won multi-year commitments from major philanthropies, forged mutually beneficial partnerships with state universities, developed a high profile in the education world for our creative approach to parent engagement, and positively impacted the lives and educational careers of hundreds of disadvantaged families in Greater Boston. FUEL has served over 525 low-income families who have saved more than $355,000 for college, and sent close to 100 students into higher education. FUEL’s impressive growth and its outsized influence in education is hardly the norm for a start-up nonprofit, and is a testament to the founder’s creativity and our groundbreaking approach to building the organization.

Let me offer two examples of the importance of the partnership mindset. Many nonprofits, especially at the start-up phase, take a hopeful but scattershot approach to fundraising. They write a boilerplate proposal, then submit it to numerous foundations hoping for some funding to get them off the ground. FUEL took a different, and ultimately more successful, approach.

 

Using Bob’s and my own connections in the business and philanthropic worlds, we met with scores of people, but initially didn’t ask them for money; we asked for help.

This request was genuine, and many of the area’s major funders provided crucial strategic and logistical guidance at the beginning that was more important than the money they later invested. I am convinced that the cash would not have come without these conversations.

 

Second, FUEL has created Compact Scholarships, which are relationships with prominent state schools in which they agree to set aside a certain number of their scholarships for FUEL students. The parents must attend all of our Savings Circles and the students need to qualify academically. Once these conditions are met, the families have the opportunity to access robust scholarships so that many of them emerge from college debt-free. The irony of the Compact Scholarships is that most of our families qualify for considerable aid just by virtue of their income status, but since they are unaware of this, it is as if it does not exist. But applying for the Compacts requires them to complete the FAFSA for consideration of income-based grants. The end result for many is that even if they do not qualify for the Compact Scholarships, they will still access significant funding they need to pay for college.

 

I didn’t establish these Compacts by going to the colleges and asking for favors. I established partnerships with them by showing how they would benefit from the on-campus presence of dedicated students whose families were 100 percent supportive.

So the critical element was not securing the scholarships, but creating the sense of shared success that is the hallmark of a first-rate partnership.

 

In many ways, FUEL has followed the familiar arc of establishing a new nonprofit organization. We have established our goals, created a market, hired a fantastic team, uncovered funding, and marketed our program and accomplishments. For me, what has made FUEL so much fun is the primary importance placed on creating and using partnerships. There is no doubt in my mind that we would not have come so far, so fast without these alliances. There is much to be learned from entrepreneurial thinking, management 101, diligent data gathering, transparent recordkeeping, and making the right hires. But in the final analysis, organizations cannot make it alone. Having partners is the key to establishing and maintaining a superb and successful organization. So…let’s talk.


Gene Miller is the chief operating officer and director of institutional advancement at the Boston-based nonprofit Families United in Educational Leadership (FUEL). FUEL educates families in disadvantaged communities about the college process and encourages them to save for college through a matched savings program.

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