Acumen Fund is committed to sharing the learnings we have collected over our past 10 years. In this spirit, we have published a document called “10 Things We’ve Learned About Tackling Global Poverty.” Each week on the Acumen Fund Blog, we will be posting the next lesson in this series of “10 Things,” along with a guest response from a valued member of our community.
10. Patient capital investing is built upon a system of values; it is not a series of steps to be followed
I was on my cell phone in my hotel room saying good night to my wife when I heard the hotel phone ring. “Who is calling you at 11 pm?” my wife asked, a little annoyed. It was Ron Jensen. He wanted to come up to my room and talk with me, and he wanted to bring his family and his minister along. I was in my pajamas and I had turned off my brain long before, but I got the feeling this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I told my wife (who was probably reminding herself that she should have listened to her friends when they pointed out that ‘social entrepreneur’ sounded like a peculiar career for a husband) that I had to go.
I was at the Launch Event for the U.S. Ashoka Fellows in Houston. The Jensen family had made a huge investment in that program, and were interested in meeting the new class of Fellows. I had spent a few minutes with Ron and other members of the family earlier in the day, and I guess what they heard intrigued them.
I changed out of my pajamas and met the family at the door. They trooped in and sat down, and then Ron said in his soft-spoken way: “We’ve all been impressed by what you’ve told us about the Interfaith Youth Core and we’d like to know more.” I showed them the six-minute video Public Television had done on our first interfaith youth council in Chicago, and laid out the IFYC plan to create a training program and spread this model around the country. They listened politely, asked a few questions, and then trooped out.
The next day I saw Ron as he was getting ready to go to the airport. Ever understated, he said: “I like your vision and energy. We’re going to do something.”
I had a follow-up conversation with the Foundation’s Executive Director, told her our highest priority was to build the organizational capacity to shape a spread strategy. “Mmm hmmm, mmm hmmm,” she said on the phone. I could hear her jotting down notes. “Can you send me something on that? Make it short – one page, large type, get to the point, fast.”
A few weeks later, the IFYC received a check for $250,000 from the foundation. It was accompanied by a one page contract, which essentially said “For the organizational capacity to build a spread strategy”. It was in large type.
There was no other documentation. There was no long list of requirements. There was no, “If you don’t accomplish this, this, and this, then you won’t get that, that, and that” language. But there was one word that felt stamped on everything, although it didn’t appear in writing anywhere. That word was trust.
There are many ways that investors attempt to create accountability in their funding relationships. Lots of due diligence up front; long, painful processes with stacks of documentation; mile after mile of reporting requirements. I’ve filled out all those forms, sat in all those meetings, delivered reports on all those deadlines. I understand why folks ask for it – you’ve got to make sure people on the other side of table know the expectations and are fulfilling them.
But I’ll tell you this: I’ve never felt a stronger sense of accountability as I did holding that $250,000 check and that one page letter. At the time, it literally doubled our budget. “I’d rather die than fail to deliver on this investment,” I thought to myself. No form, no reporting requirement, no veiled foundation threat, has ever made me feel that way. Ron and the Jensen family trusted the IFYC and me. No way was I going to let them down.
I had a two-minute follow up conversation with Ron where I got to thank him personally. Mostly he listened, but I do remember him telling this story: “When I was in business, buying and selling companies, my batting average was just okay, but my slugging percentage was terrific. I believe the idea and organization you’ve got is a home run.”
The Interfaith Youth Core has grown twenty fold since that time. We are the single largest interfaith organization in the United States, hundreds of college campuses use our program models and we are an influential player in the academic, policy and media discourse on religious diversity issues. The State Department, the White House and the Tony Blair Faith Foundation have launched initiatives modeled after our program. It’s a long way from running a youth council with eight teenagers in a church basement on the north side of Chicago. Currently, we’re preparing a new strategic plan. Our objective this time around is much more ambitious: making interfaith cooperation a social norm. If spreading a program model was a home run, then creating a new cultural pattern is winning the World Series. Sometimes I smile when I think of how far we’ve come, and how different everything would be if I had decided to stay in my pajamas in that Houston hotel room. Sometimes I just shake my head.
A few years ago, Ron Jensen died in a car accident. I felt like I had lost a grandparent or a favorite uncle – that one person in the family who believed in your crazy dream and helped you make it happen. Most of all, I’ll never forget the lesson that Ron and his family taught me: Invest in people, ideas and institutions you trust. Don’t fake trust or invent surrogates for it. If you don’t trust it, don’t invest. And when you do trust it and decide to invest, go big, and treat people as if you expect them to be winners. They’ll rise to the occasion.
Eboo Patel is the Founder and President of the Interfaith Youth Core, and a member of President Barack Obama’s inaugural Advisory Council on Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships. Eboo’s core belief is that religion is a bridge of cooperation rather than a barrier of division. He’s inspired to build this bridge by his faith as a Muslim, his Indian heritage, and his American citizenship. He has spoken about this vision at places like the TED conference, the Clinton Global Initiative, and the Nobel Peace Prize Forum, as well as college and university campuses across the country. He writes about it regularly in The Washington Post, USA Today, and The Huffington Post. Follow him on Twitter @EbooPatel