What’s Working Now: This successful advisor is driven not so much by personal gain but by his mission to recognize and support those who are doing good in his community.
Editor’s note: In this edition of What’s Working Now, an AdvisorRADIO feature in which Horsesmouth members tell us about recent success they have had running and growing their businesses, we hear from advisor R.J. Kelly, who thrives on building and celebrating lasting legacies.
The following article includes edited excerpts of R.J. telling his story. Or you can listen to the full interview by clicking the audio file below.
I love what I get to do with my for-profit life, and I feel divinely led on my nonprofit side as well. I’m on this planet to facilitate a billion dollars for philanthropy, either directly or indirectly. We’re closing in on $200 million, and if I’m granted a long life we’ll get better than $800 million and just keep going.
Part of the reason I’m so driven about legaciesis that my dad died when I was 18. He was an enormously successful business owner who created a multi-multi-million-dollar company, but it died 10 years after he did. Now, he had done some extraordinary asset protection planning so my mom didn’t get kicked to the curb, but it was an impetus for me. It’s a passion for me and my wife to work with business owners, privately held pre-liquidity, to help them get their process together.
Giving back to the community
About 10 years ago a few friends and I started a series of networking and interview events that has morphed into what we call the “Leadership Insights Forum.” We hold about four or five events a year.
That also led to the creation of my nonprofit, The Center for Wealth and Legacy, which gets confusing for folks because my for-profit side is called Wealth Legacy Group. Sometimes even my team gets confused! My first piece of advice for other advisors would be to come up with a name that’s more different from your business.
We are what’s called a “supporting organization” so we look like a private foundation, but we’re actually under the public umbrella. So I can write checks for salaries and reimburse expenses for contractors, etc. And we get insurance to cover our events.
I also do training for nonprofit executive directors. One of the first things I tell them is, “Your first-level board needs to be people who are coming there to take stuff off of your plate.” They have to be involved, more than just having their name on a board. I call my team “Actionators.” There are two other levels of boards, but that’s a conversation for another time.
Recognizing and celebrating the good
One of my actionators came to me and said, “Why don’t we find a way to recognize individuals in our community who are doing things for good?” I loved the idea. That led to our big, big annual event, our Lasting Legacy and Inspirational Awards. We just held our tenth awards night.
These days, news is terrible, and it’s just getting worse. But despite how negative things are, there’s so much good that’s happening in our country and around the world. We just don’t hear about it. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t amazing stories of inspiration and rediscovery and rebirth. So, we began looking for them.
We accept nominations from the community a few months of the year. This year we had 15 outstanding nominations that my team researched, eventually choosing three finalists. From those three we chose one big winner. Those are the Inspiration Awards.
A few years back we decided that we want to recognize individuals and organizations that are leaving a lasting legacy here in our community, even after they’re gone, celebrating ongoing benefit and care and nurturing. Our first award went to Tony and Alicia Gwynn, Tony Gwynn being the famous baseball player and remarkable coach and extraordinary guy. He passed away two months before we could give him the award, but it really touched Alicia to see his legacy celebrated and to know that his impact would continue. That became the Tony & Alicia Gwynn Lasting Legacy Award. This year the award went to the Randy Jones Foundation. We don’t just give it to baseball people, but that’s how it turned out. He takes kids whose parents are in the military and treats them to a day at the ballpark.
This year we changed things a bit by chopping expenses. I was able to get virtually everything donated—the space, a wide variety of beverages, and deep discounts on food and things like photography. I get that because we’re a nonprofit. We actually got an award from the county as well. I probably spent less than $1000 on the event all told.
With the funds I saved, this is the first year we were able to give $1000 to each of our three finalists, $2500 to the Inspirational Award Honoree, and $250 to each of the nominees. Most of the honorees have already started a charitable organization that we can give the money to. We’re still tallying numbers, but I think by the time all is said and done, we will have given away about $15,000. About a third of the revenue comes from tickets, plus some large sponsors who are clients of mine from all over the country. It’s amazing what people will get behind. They want to see how we’re making a difference and giving back to the community.
What the event looks like
This latest event had about 150 people attending. We gave them all name tags specifying if they were a VIP, a sponsor, a nominee, or whatever. Everybody had tags and ribbons and all kinds of cool stuff. Out front we had a professional photographer taking photos, and people wandered around. For two hours, from 4:30-6:30, it was just an amazing networking time. We had a speed artist, we had music, and a strolling magician, all while people are meeting each other and passing business cards. I had responsibilities, but I was able to come in and greet people and be in pictures.
Then we moved into the auditorium and I introduced the nominees. I love the looks on their faces as they get a standing ovation as they come through the doors. I could have died right then and gone to heaven and it would have been OK.
Then we had some ceremonial bits and I did a 25-minute interview with our Lasting Legacy Award winner. After that we had video interviews—from a professional videographer—of our three finalists. They get a chance to tell their story, and then they came up and got their award. At the end, people thought it was over, but I brought up my son and my wife and sang to her, then presented her with the Wind Beneath Our Wings Award. Not a dry eye in the house. People didn’t want to leave, and just kept circulating and mingling. In the past we’ve had coffee and dessert and called it “The Afterglow,” but this year we decided that was just too much work.
What people need to realize is that this is not something that started overnight. It took time to evolve. It started with our breakfast business legacy mentoring series. That took a lot of energy from me, and time away from my day job. You’ve got to balance it out. But it does grow over time and people see you in these places.
It’s not about building business
It has been good for my business. But I mean it strongly when I say don’t do this if it’s just about you, just trying to enhance your business. Frankly, I probably could have built my business twice as big if I spent as much time on it as I spend on my nonprofit. So if you think you’re going to somehow magically be front and center, don’t take this path. Your heart needs to be in this. People can spot a phony and if you’re there for the wrong reasons, they won’t want to be a part of it.
I’ve had people tell me, “You just started this because you’re trying to build your business.” I’ve realized over the years that there’s nothing I can say to them that’s going to help them understand that’s not why we do this. And truly, it isn’t why we started the nonprofit, although, yes, it does bring in business. I just got a $43 million referral for a wonderful couple. But you do this for the people you meet, the impact you have, and the lasting legacy you can create.
The types of people we’ve honored over the years are as different as night and day. This year we honored a woman who is a cook at the local high school. She loves on those kids and gives everyone a hug and calls them “Sweetie Pie.” Then when she goes home she cooks up for a couple more hours, loads it into her beat-up old car and goes out to feed the homeless, all from her own pocket. It was amazing to be able to raise money and connections for her.
Another man is a recovered alcoholic and addict who became a Christian and has been clean and sober for over 30 years. After 12 years on the staff of the San Diego Rescue Mission he decided to start an East County branch that helps hundreds of people restore their lives. It’s just incredible. And he has four kids, three of them in college. As humble as anyone you’ve ever met, yet with a huge, powerful impact.
Our third finalist has a passion to work with inner city kids on both sides of the border, and he’s involved with a number of different organizations. He has an amazing huge heart.
Then in previous years we’ve had people who train dogs to work with military vets. A woman who has cystic fibrosis but who’s a speaker and encourager. The link between all of this people is that it’s not about them, but about what they’re doing for other people.
For my wife Vymean and I, it’s an extraordinary privilege to meet these people and to hear their stories. We can encourage them and find ways to bring them together. For example, the man working at the transition gets a lot of food donations, but he can only use it for people in the program. He asks the woman who feeds the homeless, “Do you need food?” She says yes, he tells her to come by and he’ll give her the extra for free. We opened up a tremendous avenue. It’s one of those synergistic outcomes that happen when you bring people together.
Another time, two of my clients couldn’t come to the event at the last minute, so I gave their tickets to a nonprofit I’d heard of just a few days before who provides low-cost housing for families. The directors came and were exposed to a broader footprint in the community, meeting more people who are interested in what they are doing.
One of my dear clients sold his company a few years ago. He came to one of our events, where the emcee was the head of the Red Cross. The client was interested to hear more, and he’s now the number three guy in the Red Cross, sending teams all across the country.
I call it “strategic byproducts.” Yes, everyone needs money to make things work, but there are four “Ts”: time, talent, touch, and treasure. Nonprofits are starving for the business sense that we can bring, and our network. My wife and I have been putting in 14-16-hour days for the past month getting this big event ready, juggling our for-profit and nonprofit lives. But it’s worth it. I love being the facilitator to bring these groups together. I call it “psychic income,” watching people come together and create good for the community.
We got an email from one of our honorees, that said, “Sometimes it gets so discouraging, it gets lonely, sometimes we don’t really know if we’re even having an impact in the lives of other people…You can’t even imagine how much this means to me.”
Feel free to contact me. I would love to have other Inspiration Awards events all across the country. You can go to www.wealthlegacycenter.org to see more about our events, and www.wealthlegacygroup.com for my for-profit side. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org, and we can set up time for a conference call.