When I launched Nine13sports at the age of 23, I was a brash and driven kid with a vision of who I wanted our organization to impact, and how we would create change throughout Central Indiana. I knew nothing about nonprofit organizations. I had a lot of street smarts picked up from my youth but had no formal business background, and knew even less about the peculiarities of nonprofit business development. But at 23, I thought I was invincible. If I just shared my vision supporters would come crooning for us.

I was so naïve and foolish in that thinking, I look back and cringe.

Nine13sports was founded on a great idea, but we lacked relationships with decision-making community members. I stumbled through the first operating year totally shocked at how tight-knit the Indianapolis community was and I stumbled through our first year of operation unsure of why no one seemed as exciting about our idea as we were. The money was not even trickling out of donor pockets, which was a far cry from the heaps of support and donations I anticipated. In this first year I was lucky to even schedule a meeting with “the right person I needed to speak to”.

Four years later, I look back and realize the biggest error I made as a young nonprofit director: I expected the red carpet to be rolled out for us, based on my enthusiasm alone. I approached every interaction as a potential lead for Nine13sports and didn’t understand the bigger picture was not about my organization, but about how we could best serve our community. In these early days, I believed our idea would sell itself, I didn’t understand the power of building relationships to evangelize my vision and to play a supporting role in Indianapolis.

I have always shied away from the term “networking” and I feel like I spent the first few years trying to mimic and imitate what I thought networking was instead of being myself and letting things come naturally and easily.

About 18 months ago, I started to realize the error of my ways as a nonprofit executive director. I stopped trying to define what networking looked like and instead started building meaningful relationships in the community. These relationships were not about closing a sale today, but instead focused on a common vision of building a greater Indianapolis. Instead of spending my time in cold meetings, I joined communities like the Speak Easy, and started attending different young professional events. Business relationships develop by being authentic, bonding over shared interest, and through conversation rather than pitches. It’s not a coincidence that in the past year, Nine13sports has exploded in terms of growth and successes in ways I never imagined as I sat and struggled in our early years.

Looking back from where I stand today, my biggest piece of advice to those who are beginning their nonprofit journeys is to be yourself, engage in the community in a variety of ways and to not approach people as strict business contacts. As the best donors, advocates and supporters will share more than their business cards with you: you will have a common passion. The more I learn, the more I realize when I started I did not know what the big picture would look like when it was painted.

The canvas is still being formed, but I will continue to work not just to surround myself with people, but with the right people. I challenge you to take the time to learn the value of meaningful relationships, not just networking relationships. The right people will come naturally into your life after that.

If you could give one piece of advice to an individual with a nonprofit vision, what would it be?

Tom Hanley

Tom Hanley

Executive Director at Nine13sports
Tom Hanley is the Executive Director of Nine13sports, a nonprofit organization that promotes health, wellness, and exercise for local youth between the ages of 8 and 18 using bicycling as the gateway.