Building Your Community Through Service

At a Network In Action meeting North of Houston in the Woodlands, there are small groups of people scattered around the room busily discussing what charities and local service projects they want to get behind. During the discussion, it comes out that two of its group members have children with juvenile diabetes. One of those members volunteered just a few days before to head up this year’s Juvenile Diabetes Gala. The night he agreed to do that, he lay in bed with his eyes wide open, wondering where he was possibly ever going to get all the volunteers he needed to pull off that gala. However, when the NIA® group hears that two of its members have children with this disease, the entire group volunteers to work the gala in the fall. His problem of recruiting volunteers is over!

The gala ends up being a success, and today, that group is still heavily involved with raising money and participating in this annual event.

This emphasis on service and giving back is at the core of who we are as a company. It’s not separate from our culture—it is our culture. As we continue to grow the company and continue to make this a requirement, we want this to be our hallmark.

My last business was very lucrative, easily bringing in seven figures annually for a number of years. I always talked about creating a foundation, but never did it. It’s one of the great regrets of my life. We didn’t start where I felt we needed to first—which is to be socially responsible and conscious of those who aren’t as blessed as we might be. I decided when we started NIA® that we would not make that mistake again. With NIA®, we put first things first. We decided from day one that every one of our franchises would participate in some kind of community outreach project each year in order to give back to the communities that have been so good to us.

Therefore, when we sit down with prospective franchise owners, one of the things we always ask is, “What are you doing charitably?” We ask that question prior to the disclosure that heading up these projects is going to be one of their responsibilities as an owner. We want to make sure the seeds of that service are already there. It’s at the core of NIA®, how we choose our leaders, and how we choose our group members.

This makes perfect sense because if you think about great networkers, they’re the people with the biggest hearts. They’re the people who are always looking out for others. If you take a group of these successful, professional, and powerful people, they all have gifts to bring to the table and are willing to bring them. Our call to our members is this: We want you to bring your gift. Some years, that may be your talent; some years, that may be your time; some years, that may be your money. We never want you to give to the point of hardship, but we encourage everyone in the group to bring something.

How it Works

At some point each year, your group will break out into smaller groups, each representing a different area of interest. The members move to the group where their hearts move them to. Some members may be interested in helping the environment, some may want to serve victims of abuse, and others may want to help veterans, or pets, or any number of great causes. These small groups have a short discussion in which all of the members are allowed the opportunity to articulate which philanthropic efforts they are passionate about. Then each small group comes to an agreement on exactly which cause they want to take on and how to execute the service project before electing a spokesperson, who then stands up in front of the entire meeting and tries to sell everyone else on their concept of who or what they want to support.

Ultimately, each NIA® group comes up with a project that its entire membership is going to get behind. Each project is typically an ongoing endeavor of three to five months. It may be something as simple as going to the food bank for two or three hours on a Saturday, where members will have time to network while also giving back to a great organization. Or, it could be something as big as a festival for veterans.

The VetFest

We first launched this idea in the eleventh month of our first group, the NIA® Houston Heights Group. I am announcing this initiative and wondering where it will lead. I have a great amount of trepidation, as this is our first introduction of this big idea for every NIA® member in every group to give something back. As the group breaks up into smaller groups, some members go to a table to discuss how to cut down on sex trafficking since the NFL’s Super Bowl is coming to town in a few months, and this problem seems to travel annually to the host city. Other members discuss child abuse, the environment, and pet adoption. Then there is one table that is getting particularly loud and passionate about veterans when suddenly, this crazy guy, Tyler Peck, the owner of The Spaghetti Western Italian Café, stands up and says, “We need to do a VetFest! We need to do it on Veteran’s Day and have beer and food! We will have bands, and booths for kid, and we can start in the parking lot in the afternoon and end late at night!” I’m standing there thinking, Slow down, cowboy, how are we ever going to pull this off in three months? I am also thinking that perhaps I need to be more careful about what I ask for, as I am looking ahead and seeing how this could get really out of hand!

Ultimately, the group elects a chair person, retired soldier Ms. Maureen Roberts with Cardinal Delivery in Houston, Texas, and she teams up with forty-one other business owners from two NIA® groups to put together VetFest 2016. They research different charities and finally select a charity called “Combined Arms” to work with, which is a brilliant organization. As we learned from Combined Arms, on average, veterans take four to six years to integrate back into society when they leave the military. Their populations are rife with divorces, people who lose houses, those who have PTSD, and those who are really struggling to get back on their feet in a number of ways. Yet, these are really talented people who still have a lot to offer their communities and deserve the best of jobs after serving their country. They just don’t know where to go. When soldiers come to Combined Arms, this charity does an assessment to see what the soldiers need, and then they pair them with one or more of the twenty-six different charities they’re working with, all under one roof.

Over the course of the next three months, we see all kinds of different businesses come together—one donates the branding, another the website, one company contributes the SEO for the event, and others contribute the bands, T-shirts for sale, volunteers to build the stage, and everything else we need in order to pull off a successful event. It is a huge success, and everyone involved really bonds and connects with each other. Crowds of veterans come out and attend, and it is a very moving day all around.

We end up spending a grand total of $126 on the entire event and raising over $8,000! It’s enough money to turn a naked conference room into a powerful, multi-use training center for veterans. It’s a place they can go to be trained on how to write resumes, take classes on improving their credit or saving their mortgage, and more. The room is equipped with technology to support all of these endeavors. In fact, the audio-visual company involved ended up only charging their costs for the project. They are one of many companies who gave their ideas, money, or time.

Giving and Getting Back

Fast forward a year after our dear Maureen volunteered to lead us on VetFest, and she received the shattering news that she has been diagnosed with lung cancer. The group that worked with her most closely voted that this year’s charity would involve one thing and one thing only: assisting Maureen as much as possible. They’re providing transportation to treatments when needed and a maid service for her home twice a month so that when she’s there she can be comfortable.

Her story shows the true beauty of this truth: When we give, no matter how much we think we are giving, we always get back more in return. That’s what we want NIA®, at its core, to be about. At the end of the day, NIA® is about taking action—action to grow our businesses and to serve our communities that have been so good to us. We have sixteen different charitable projects going on in Houston right now, and that number continues to rise in cities across the US as we add more and more franchises across the country.

More Than I Dreamed

This service model surpasses my dream of starting a foundation. If we’d started a foundation, we would have only been raising money and helping maybe one or two select causes. Originally, we thought that perhaps we should keep our service efforts close to the brand—for instance, maybe we should focus on teaching entrepreneurs at the colleges or mentoring kids. But then I thought, You know what? Every single one of our groups are full of people who already have causes close to their heart. Let’s let them choose.

Our current model is so far beyond anything I could have dreamed in my last business. We’re attracting people who want to participate and who have the means to do so, even if they aren’t able to write a check, because they have such incredible and diverse talents they are ready and willing to share. Our members are bringing gifts from their hearts to the communities they already love, and which have loved them back. NIA® is helping build relationships that last a lifetime!

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