We sat down with Lauren Dillon, Founder of Triad Resource Group, to learn more about her entrepreneurial journey and hear her advice for other entrepreneurs. Lauren was one of the original members of Young Ambassadors for Opportunity and is a long-time friend of Opportunity International.
Lauren: I’m Lauren Dillon and I’m the Founder and Co-Collaborator of the Triad Resource Group. We’re a fundraising implementation firm; so to liken us to a staffing firm would maybe be a better mistake than to say that we’re a consulting firm, although we do provide some strategic planning resources and assistance to organizations. We act as an auxiliary arm to organizations existing development departments.
Perhaps this looks like a special project that needs grant writing help. Perhaps there’s a new growth initiative or a need to plan and walk out the cultivation of initial seed funding. Or there’s important grant money that has come in for special projects that needs to be managed. So we come in during times of growth and transition for organizations and help on their development teams. We actually take titles with the organizations that we serve. We’re a very high-touch company – we spend a lot of hours with our clients.
Allison: How did you get started in this business? What was your background, and how did you decide to start your own venture?
Lauren: I started Triad Resource Group after 10 years of working in development as a fundraiser for a number of different organizations. Like a lot of development personnel, I jumped from job to job in an effort to both keep myself challenge as well as make enough money. This job is not often known for its high-paying salary. When a study came out called “Underdeveloped”, I really resonated with the conclusions of this report, which said that there was high turnover in the development space and then listed 15 or so reasons why that was.
Making this personal, I had to figure out what this was going to mean for myself. What was the ladder that I was going to climb? What was the ladder that I could develop for myself that would provide me with challenge and opportunity? And what was I noticing about the space – about the fund-development space, what its needs were, what its gaps were and what I could provide to the marketplace?
Triad Resource Group was born out of those reflections. I ended up working a number of development jobs and was sitting on a number of boards. And I was going to school full time for three years on top of it all. And I was getting really burnt out. I ended up spending six months in reflection on those two things: myself and my field, and how I could combine those two things together. And something really curious happened in those six months. One was that a number of foundations that had supported organizations that I had worked for came to me and were curious about having me jump sides of the table and become a senior grant officer.
And another basket was forming at the same time. That basket was eight emergent nonprofits – and emergent I would define as baseline funding and baseline programs, which tend to be between half a million and five million annually. So they’re not startups, though they have some startup attributes to them. And they wouldn’t describe themselves as adult or highly mature organizations like hospitals or school systems or even how I would describe Opportunity International. These organizations came to me and said something very curious. They said, “We want you, Lauren, and only you, to start tomorrow. We have money in the bank to pay you, but we cannot provide you full-time hours or benefits.”
And I thought that this was really curious, and my experience in the field led me to know that there were a lot of organizations like this – that had some money to spend, that had some traction that could be leveraged and maximized, but just simply didn’t have the development help they needed. And they didn’t have seasoned development help, meaning they could only hire someone who was fresh out of college. But I had a master’s degree, and I knew other people who had master’s degrees in these fields. They also found that they couldn’t lure someone like me – or they thought they couldn’t lure someone like me – because they couldn’t provide full-time work and benefits.
So long story short, I ended up going with this basket of conversations and started Triad Resource Group, which was me saying yes to all eight contracts. I quickly hired people around me that I had worked with to come and join me in helping these emergent nonprofits. I said yes to all eight, and those eight became my very first clients. They were my study and they became the guinea pigs. At first, they only knew me – remember they said they wanted me, and they weren’t sure they wanted anyone else. It took them about six months to realize that a company had formed around them and that I had other assistants and other talent around me that could be beneficial to their development conversation. I slowly began introducing those that I had hired.
My dad’s an entrepreneur – he and I are both heavily involved with Opportunity – and one of the things that he taught me as an entrepreneur was that until you have clients, you only have a really good idea. While your marketing is really important, your branding is really important, you don’t have a company until you have those first few clients. I harnessed those clients and then had to build the infrastructure around them.
Allison: Were there things you were looking for in your clients that made them well-suited to fit your team, or vice versa?
Lauren: That’s a question we get a lot, actually. I would say that while we can provide some strategic planning help; we’re not predominantly a strategic planning organization. That means that I really look for organizations that have worked some to develop their board and they have worked some to put together a plan. And that plan has to include something about fundraising. So what are their goals and objectives for the next three years for fundraising? They might not know how to get there, but what is their mission and what does their budget dictate?
I often love working with area companies like Campbell and Company or Executive Service Corps or Taproot Foundation or The Alford Group. We see ourselves as a complement to those organizations that have a lot of background in board development and strategic planning. What we do is we come in next and say, ok, we’ll help you get lift-off on these plans. Often time these plans include growth and they just don’t have enough development personnel on their team to get the real lift-off that they need. We come in at a price point that is affordable to those emergent nonprofits.
The other thing is trust and chemistry – working chemistry. These things are hard to describe and put your finger on, but you know it when you hear it on the phone with your prospective client, or you’re in a meeting and you just feel like there’s a good vibe.
One of the things that is so important to this work is real candor. These clients don’t have to accept all of our advice or respond positively every single time, but we’re there for a reason and we’re bringing our A game. Sometimes that means saying hard things and having difficult conversations. It’s important for us to have a posture of humility, and it’s important for our clients to have a posture of humility. So one of the things we often will ask our clients is, “Should there be a disagreement, or should there be conflict, how are we going to agree to fight?” The answers to those questions have turned out to make ongoing relationships, meaning we’ll sign multiple contracts with a client. Why? Because when we get into those challenging circumstances – on either end, you know, this is close, high-touch work. Frustration is inevitable. Annoyance is inevitable. And this is true not just in our trade, but in any other trade too where there is so much time with the client - we’ve agreed on how we are going to disagree with one another and how we’re going to manage that frustration. That conversation leads to real trust and real respect, and hopefully an ongoing relationship.
Those are the two things we kind of look for – where are they from a planning standpoint and where are they in terms of trust and working chemistry? Do we have those things in place?
Allison: What have been some of the most challenging pieces of starting your own business from scratch?
Lauren: That first 18 months was all-around challenging, so it’s hard to pick specific things. I would say this: I had the clients, so I had to build the company around the client. That was very ambiguous to begin with. I didn’t see myself as an entrepreneur, though I look back and see that I when I was eight years old I had an earring business selling jewelry and so I see that I had those entrepreneurial traits early. But I didn’t readily identify myself as an entrepreneur, though people were quick to put the label on me. I saw myself, first and foremost, as a worker, an assistant to the client. And I see that as a strength of myself, that I first and foremost identify as an assistant to the client, but that has a deficiency in it. I needed to see myself, for the long-term health of the company, as an entrepreneur and a small-business owner, and to take ownership of all of the responsibilities and activities that come with that.
It took me a little while to grab hold of what it was that I needed to do. Everywhere from legal filings with the state to the attorney general’s office to what does our marketing budget look like to do we have a marketing budget to how to build in that overhead with our clients to price point. We learned all sorts of things with those original clients. We were charging too much or we were charging too little. I had done some market research so I knew that our model was rare in the space, but that didn’t meant that there weren’t aspects of our work that competed with others in the area. So what did that mean that we were competitors? How did I approach my competitors? And how did I approach partners? All these questions were questions that milled around in my head and I had to figure out – they were challenging to me.
The client work was sometimes the easier work than actually building out the company. I learned the hard way that business development is not something that you can slack on.
Allison: And what has been one of the most rewarding things?
Lauren: One of the most rewarding things has been that it’s my own. At the end of the day, I actually enjoy that the buck stops with me. That’s not a control thing as much as it’s if I’m going to fail, I want to own all of that. And if I’m going to succeed, then I want to succeed. I love the fact that I can own it and there’s something that I can grow and posses. But while I own it, I also have to own that I am not able, in and of myself, to be complete enough for this work. It’s taken a lot of self-reflection to understand where are my weaknesses, where are my strengths. And even finding people whose strengths align with my strengths so that we can attract more clients. The fun thing for me has been in the challenge – the reward has also been the challenge. I own the responsibilities and activities of this company, and I can direct its course. And depending on the season of the company, that can be either really daunting or really exciting.
Allison: Can you share a few of your favorite client memories or moments that stick out for you?
Lauren: I have two. One was something that was really challenging and one that was really rewarding. I think I have gotten a lot of learning from both of those things. I’ll start with the good news. The fun story is that we have had two clients this year who – talk about working chemistry – we’ve just been kindred spirits. We have absolutely fallen in love with each other’s models. My model of running a company matches so perfectly with their model of organizational management. It’s been easy and it’s been fun. And the work that they do is something that is near and dear to our hearts. So it’s been a pleasure to do overtime for them, to show up, to even take vacation time to do insight trips with them – to have those extra dinners and those extra lunches – it’s truly fulfilling. And it reminds me of why we do the work that we do with the organizations that we serve.
A challenging story that happened that I learned a lot from was about six months into the life of Triad. This was one of those eight organizations that we signed initially. It was a very big deal – the contract was a very big deal. It was high profile. Ultimately the project was not being well managed. We were being paid a lot of money in order to help bring an element – the fund development element – to this project. Long story short, it became very clear to us that we actually had to exit the project. This was good ethics. This was good stewardship. But this was our largest client. It meant significant things to our bottom line. I had taken ethics classes and communication classes and negotiation classes in college, but I had this acute feeling that this was where the rubber met the road. And it was really hard to leave.
I realized the hold that money had on my life and that was painful to see – that I would stay in something unhealthy and unproductive just for the money. So I had to examine my heart in that. And then there was the practical aspect of the fact that this was going to hurt us financially. And it was potentially going to hurt our reputation. Yet ultimately I knew that it was the right thing to do and I hoped that I would be vindicated in time. So we did.
We staged our leave and it was really hard – it was hard for the client, it was hard for us. We tried to do it graciously, but it was really awkward for a time. And I spent a lot of time praying – and Saturdays, I couldn’t get out of bed – wrestling with God, thinking, “Really God? This is what you want? You want us to leave this project that had been so fortuitous and had been so exciting just weeks earlier?” And the answer had been yes.
So we left. And it was awkward. But then, within six to nine months, we got a phone call and it was from the client. The client was in no position to bring us back on, both financially or in any other pragmatic way, but it was a call from the client apologizing, saying you were exactly right. They had opened all of our emails, opened all of our memos that had gone unanswered. And they told us, “We just want you to know that you were prophetic in this. You had real insight. And you were following that insight. Would you join our advisory committee?”
I learned in that moment, first of all, that God takes care of his children. He took care of the client and he took care of us. He takes care of us, even in business, when we make those really hard decisions. It didn’t matter that I was in my late 20s or early 30s – big decisions can come upon us at any age. I always thought that these issues were things that people in 50s or 60s dealt with, and I realized that I was playing in the big leagues. I needed to have the grace and the ethics and the courage even at a younger age if I was going to be a small business owner and engage with the kind of clients that I was engaging with
So there was redemption in that, and that had been my prayer all along. And now we have a great relationship with the client. We’re not engaged in a client relationship today with them, but we can pass them on the street, see them in a restaurant, and go up to them and give them a big hug.
Allison: Amazing how well it worked out in the end. Shifting gears a little bit, do you have a motto or a piece of advice that sticks with you and motivates or shapes your work?
Lauren: You’re not the first person to ask me this! I don’t know if there’s so much a motto as much as the lesson that I would share to other small business owners is perseverance and curiosity and hard work are going to be the three ingredients that let you know if your idea is going to swim or sink.
We just crossed the two-year mark for Triad Resource Group, which I hear from other business owners is a really important mark. It means that maybe you’ll have some success – or your chances go up. And if I can attribute any of that success to anything, it would be to perseverance or endurance and curiosity. I turned over every relational rock. I was never taught marketing strategy, so seeing that as a weakness and remaining curious to learn about it and surround myself with people who have good marketing insights. I surrounded myself with other mentors – and asked what they had learned, what their space had taught them. I was greedy or gluttonous for knowledge. I wanted to learn from those who had failed in business and those who had succeeded in business. Frankly, those that had had challenges were the most helpful and the most inspiring. I sought those people and those relationships and those networks out, and I would encourage other small business owners to do that.
Even if someone doesn’t have a business, maybe they just have an idea or an area of study or a question – I encourage folks to wrestle with those ideas and questions and really seek out answers through reflection, through conversation with other people. I encourage people to be searchers, to be explorers of those questions and ideas.
Allison: Great advice. Looking broadly, what do you see as the big value in entrepreneurship? In chasing after your own ideas?
Lauren: I’m very patriotic – I’m learning this about myself. I have a huge love for America and for the American experiment. One of the things I love about this very deficient country – it has a lot of dysfunction – is that one of things we did right very early on was to encourage small business. I guess another way of saying that is that we are really pioneers. This is not just the Thomas Jeffersons, but it’s the Rockefellers and those who went out west in search of something that was unseen. I hope we never lose that as a country. One of the great strengths of our civic fabric is the fact that one can pursue her dreams and one can pursue ideas. And I think that we are stronger because of it. The strength or the solvency of a country can come and go based on how they treat entrepreneurs. What do they do with big ideas? Do they allow people to explore? Do they incentivize or promote that?
We have a lot of things wrong with this country, but if you look around the world, the strongest countries are the ones that promote small business – that love entrepreneurs and make it relatively easy for them to do their work. I think we have it relatively easy here in America. We have a country that foundationally supports small business. By comparison to other countries, we have a nation that supports small business in its tax laws and legal systems.
I think about Opportunity’s clients around the world, and they are in countries and cultures that aren’t as hospitable to small business. I stand in awe and reverence to these men and women overseas that Opportunity supports. They have economic, infrastructure, tax disincentives in many ways but they still persevere.
Allison: I’d love to hear a bit more about what drew you to support Opportunity.
Lauren: I got connected with Opportunity seven years ago when Linda VanderWeele (an Opportunity VP of Philanthropy) brought in Chris Crane who was, at the time, the CEO to come and give a talk at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. It was about 50 people and it was an early morning session – I’ll never forget it. I had been a long-time member of the Council – I had a background in International Relations and was living and working in the inner city of Chicago. I was using the Council as a way of fueling my international interests.
I remember reading the synopsis to what Chris was going to talk about – how business practices could be applied to charity work was how I read it. My dad has been in business for a long time, I’m surrounded by business people, every one of my friends from college seemed to go into business, and here I was involved in charity work. I admire my dad and I admire his work, but I could never figure out how my work and his work were going to come together. I wanted us to find a common space so I invited him to come with me. I happened to be the only woman in the room and I brought down the median age by about 20 years. And Chris did a wonderful presentation, and Linda, being good at her job, really cultivated both of us. My dad had a real interest in the business aspect of Opportunity, and I had a real interest in the people and the cultures and the replicable nature of this charitable work.
At the time, Young Ambassadors for Opportunity was just a seedling of an idea, and somehow Jennifer Mitrenga (an Opportunity VP of Philanthropy) was put into the mix. And both Jennifer and Linda asked me to be a formative part of this group of young professionals in Chicago. We didn’t know what this group was going to look like, what is was going to entail, how it was going to serve these clients of Opportunity around the world, but they gave us that task of helping figure that out. I loved something that was unformed that together we could bring formation to.
So many organizations struggle with how to manage their volunteers and I knew that. Opportunity did such a wonderful job of managing both my gifts – both my financial gifts and my talent gifts. That really sold me first, just how Opportunity conducted itself. This is true in so much client-facing charitable work. How you engage with your volunteers is so important. Our family has gone on to support Opportunity International heavily, but it came out of a lot of conversation and a lot of time put in by Opportunity staff, and we’re grateful.
Allison: Looking to the future, what is a big dream you have for Triad, another venture or yourself?
Lauren: I don’t know that I have any big dreams for Triad, but I do desire that it continue to grow and become more and more adult. We might be a boutique operation, but I think that there are ways in which we can continue to become more mature ourselves. It’s a little ironic because we are on a similar trajectory as our client. We’re an emergent company while they are an emergent organization. So a lot of the challenges that these organizations face, we face internally as a company. We’re learning together. I think that’s a wonderful thing about the working chemistry between our company and our clients. I want to continue to walk out that journey of maturation for Triad.
Because we’ve had a little bit of success, there is always something nagging at the back of my mind about what other ideas or what other talents I have that could be maximized and turned into a company – that could serve a clientele and provide work and employment to talented individuals. I imagine Triad won’t be my last company, and I’m always kind of curious about what that next company will be. I have a feeling it’s going to be something completely different. I always have my radar out for what else God would have me do with what I am now acknowledging as an entrepreneurial spirit.
Allison: Thank you so much for sharing your story with us!