At Nike, Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman used a waffle iron to create the first running shoe. At Apple, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak worked from the Jobs' family garage to hand-build the Apple I. Sarah Blakely stripped down from the same white pants at meetings for three years to launch Spanx.
What do all of these stories have in common? A name and memorable details that you can share.
Most nonprofits I talk with do not have a founding story. The usual version is something like, "Our founders saw a pressing need in the community and created our organization in response." Completely accurate and not likely to be shared by anyone. To be nameless and story-less is not a good place to be in today's social media world.
A great founding story says something about the people and ethos of your organization. Blakely uses her founding story to talk about how she is committed to removing the pain from the world of beauty. Jobs' and Knight's stories humanized billionaires and their multi-billion dollar companies.
Nonprofits actually do have great founding stories; they just haven't created them as stories. Every nonprofit sprang from someone's passion to right a wrong. To craft your founding story, figure out who that someone is and what key action they took to get started.
A great founding story helps with fundraising and marketing. It also helps with the creation of your organizational culture. As your employees change, the passion and purpose behind your founding story will shape the types of people you attract.
At Bet Tzedek, where I was Development Director for five years, the founding story centers on a small group of young attorneys. Two of them, Luis Lainer and Stan Levy, remain on Bet Tzedek's Board of Directors more than 40 years later. In 1974, Luis and Stan saw that unscrupulous landlords were driving elderly renters out of their apartments. Bet Tzedek's founders created a flyer, tacked it up on various street poles, and wondered if anyone would show up on a Wednesday evening for the "free legal clinic."
The line went around the building and Luis and Stan were on their way to solving an important need.
That is a great founding story. What's yours?