How To Turn A Grassroots Effort Into A National Non Profit With Sean Valigura
Operation Valor started by chance.
It grew into a national non-profit. Today its founder and executive director Sean Valigura credits his work for helping him as much as it helps others.
Sean laughs as he describes the “crappy little t-shirts” he designed himself, on his home computer. It was the best he could do when he was asked by a friend to put together something to honor Chris Kyle and Chad Littlefield, the two selfless men who’d lost their lives in the very spot a Spartan Race was to take place. He’d been unsure how to respond to the request but “you don’t say ‘no’ to something like that,” he says. And so he’d done his best.
Those “crappy little t-shirts” raised two thousand dollars, which Sean split between the Chris Kyle Memorial Fund and Guardian for Heroes.
It was only by chance that Sean had been at that race in the first place. The rekindling of a friendship with a long lost buddy was what had introduced the Navy veteran to the world of obstacle course races. Sean saw his friend’s Facebook pictures of these events, and they caught his attention.
“They looked like fun,” he remembers. He’d done plenty of obstacle courses in the military. These races would be easy physical challenges, that provide a venue to reconnect with friends and try something new – or so he thought.
He injured himself on the very first obstacle. He would later learn that searing pain he felt in his left groin was a partial tear. At the moment all he knew was it sucked, but before he could dwell too much on that he injured himself again – and again, and again.
He finished that race with a torn groin muscle, a high ankle sprain in his right leg, 3 broken bones in his right foot and one in his left. Never again, he swore to himself.
Moments later he would take that oath back.
As he sat in the team tent, catching his breath and pushing the physical pain from his mind, the emotions hit. In that moment he wouldn’t have traded any of those injuries for the clarity and release that slammed into him upon reflecting on those 7 hours and 17 minutes of exquisite misery.
Finally, so many years after his military service, Sean was able to identify that “thing” he’d felt missing in his life.
At first, he’d mistaken the comments as mockery. Wracked with pain and in an ever-increasing foul mood, he’d snapped nasty retorts at waves of runners yelling out their support to him. When he finally realized these comments were sincere, and not sarcastic, he’d been stunned. It was unlike any of his athletic experiences before. It was unlike anything he’d experienced since he’d been on active duty. As that wave of camaraderie and support washed through him, years of pent-up emotions poured out.
He sat in that tent and wept. He wept away two decades of time spent searching for something to fill a gaping void in his life, and he wept with the joy of knowing he’d found it.
He was hooked. He began searching for another race, and that search lead him to the Rough Creek Lodge in Glen Rose, TX.
Sean recognized the site as the one where Chris Kyle and Chad Littlefield had been killed. It was when he’d pointed it out to the leadership of his race team that he’d been asked to come up with a way to honor those men, and his grass root effort was born.
He’d thought it was a one-and-done deal. It felt good to raise and donate those funds but starting a non-profit had never crossed his mind. He’d checked that box and moved on. Life, though, has a way of showing us the paths that will lead to our true purpose. Sometimes these signs are subtle. In Sean’s case they were not.
Shortly after the funds were donated, Sean’s inbox exploded with hundreds of messages from people who’d heard of his efforts. They thanked him. They inquired about buying more shirts. At that moment, Sean says, he realized he may be on to something. Perhaps he could utilize his experience to help the veteran community as a whole.
Within a few years Sean Valigura had grown his network and acknowledged his passion for giving back to veterans causes. The time had come to make the official leap from grassroots into a 501(c)3.
Sean didn’t know anything about starting or growing a 501(c)3 then. But he’s learned a lot since he founded Operation Valor and he’s got some advice for anyone else interested in following in his footsteps.
With over 46,000 veteran-related non-profits recognized by the IRS, Sean and his team knew they’d have to think creatively. “What’s can we bring that’s new and can help veterans?” they asked themselves.
Being realistic about your value is key. What is your mission and how will you achieve it?
In an already saturated world of veterans’ charities, it seemed as though no need was being unmet. Rather than focus on one specific area, then, they decided to become a fundraising arm to support other 501(c)3 organizations focused on veterans.
Mission in hand, the next step Sean took – one he strongly advises for everyone- was to enlist the help of a professional firm specializing in 501(c)3 formation. That professional guidance was invaluable for them, says Sean, and made the 9-12 month process much clearer.
Time management is another key consideration.
“If you want to start a 501(c)3 and truly make an impact on your community,” says Sean, “you’ve better make sure you’ve got time to devote to that.”
Like Sean, many non-profit founders devote full-time hours to launching and growing their organization. Operation Valor is an all-volunteer organization. Every single dollar goes right out to support established, vetted non-profits selected by their Board. For now, Sean works a full-time day job to pay his own bills. Every minute spent on Operation Valor is donated time.
By the time the IRS granted official 501(c)3 status to Operation Valor, Sean and his team had established a reputation of sincerity, integrity, and impact. Their four major events grow each year. Three of their four key events are physical challenges. This is not just because of the overlap between Sean’s own communities, but because they are effective.
“There’s an amazing dynamic that occurs at these events,” Sean says. Shared adversity and even misery, he laughs, create a bond among total strangers. It’s rewarding to see. It also serves as a gateway through which participants expand that bond into the Cause behind it.
Donations are readily offered and carefully selected products resonate with supporters. This is another important factor many people overlook.
“You’ve got to have a fundamental understanding of your market.”
Sean cannot emphasize this enough. Know who you are appealing to. For him, it is the endurance and running worlds. It’s also veterans and patriots. Patriotic apparel, fitness competitions, and other products are designed specifically for those communities.
Operation Valor has grown into a nationally recognized organization supported by celebrities, veterans, and everyday Americans.
From the outside looking in it can seem like an overnight success but is, in reality, the product of continued effort and proven impact. When asked by others how to attract similar support, Sean offers his own method as the answer – start locally and grow outward. Work through all the “No’s” to find the “Yes.” Invest in marketing and promoting events, because even the most spectacular event is worthless if no one knows about it and comes out to support it.
Finally, a last reminder from Sean – Your mission is your end result. He never worries about who gets credit for the work. Don’t focus on accolades or applause. Stay true to your mission. The mission is what matters. Not the credit.
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