Client Conversation: David Wilkinson

First Republic Bank

How did you start down your career path?

I’ve loved soccer since I was a very little kid.  I’ve been fortunate to grow up playing it and then to work in the field professionally.  I originally got involved in coaching the girls’ team from my high school during my freshman year in college, and I’ve been coaching in some way ever since. 

What was your first step when starting your nonprofit?  

When we got going a couple of years ago, working with well-established, best-in-class organizations was a strategic priority.  We identified the partners we wanted to work with and then figured out how to make it beneficial for both sides.  It was important to us that we knew we weren’t replicating services because we didn’t want to go out and recreate the wheel.  

We didn’t have a tremendous amount of backing, so we started with our own network, reaching out to mentors.  I was fortunate to get introduced to someone in the Board of Trustees at the Boys and Girls Club in San Francisco.  Today, we are based out of six of the nine Boys and Girls Club clubhouses in the Bay Area. 

After you identified partners, what was your next step in establishing Project Vega?

Fundraising was the next step.  As a startup nonprofit, we realized the importance of engaging our network and taking the time to explain what our vision was, how we planned to grow it and who was involved.  Our funding came from securing a critical mass of people who shared our passion and believed in our vision.

We also continued to operate very efficiently while we looked (and continue to look) for funding.  For example, we have a full-time staff of three and don’t yet have an office space.  While there’s space available to us, we have to be smarter, more creative and prudent about how we use our money.   

You mentioned identifying key partners and fundraising.  What else did you consider when getting Project Vega up and running?

Grants are an important component, but they can be difficult to obtain when you don’t have the 5 or 10 year data to show your proven track record.  We had success working with well-established organizations on joint grants.  It was a smart and realistic approach for us, and being a lean organization, we made sure to partner with one that had a development department. 

What is one of Project Vega’s strengths?

One of our strengths is having a board of directors and staff with a wealth of experience across different industries and walks of life.  When forming our board, we brought together people with different experiences.  That meant having someone with a consulting background who has tremendous management skills alongside another director who has a strong philanthropic vision.

What makes Project Vega different than other soccer programs?

We tie the game of soccer to academic support programs, all offered to our participants and their families at no cost.  We have a recreational soccer club, Play Vega, and a competitive soccer club, Vega Football Club, which involve grade monitoring, tutoring referrals and as the kids age, truancy prevention.

Why are academics such an important part of your program?

A number of our kids are “English as a second language” learners, so building a strong foundation for them and making sure that they have the support they need in school right now is important.  We don’t run tutoring ourselves, but we partner with organizations in San Francisco like 826 Valencia and the Jamestown Community Center, both of which have academic resources that we refer our kids to.  If a player is struggling in school, it could be a requirement for them to go to tutoring in order to participate with us.  We’re focused on monitoring report cards and recognizing certain deficiencies.

Play Vega’s +Talk is a program we run in the summer when kids don’t traditionally get much academic support. The curriculum is based around sports commentary where kids not only play, but observe, analyze and announce the play of their teammates. We run that with the Boys and Girls Club, and it’s great because the kids just think they are playing and don’t necessarily realize that they’re getting academic support while they’re having a blast on the field.

What is your source of inspiration?

Project Vega is named after a gentleman I coached, Raul Vega, whose story is on our website.  Soccer was what helped him realize that a college education was possible.  He was approached by a college coach, and knowing his grades weren’t good enough to get him in, he worked really hard with the support of his coaches to complete four years of high school in just two.  He was the first person in his family to go to college, and he’s currently there now.  It took me a little while to establish Project Vega, but Raul’s the reason I finally got here.

What are some lessons you’ve learned from this process that can help others looking to start their own nonprofit? 

Be a good listener.  There is a lot to learn from people inside and outside of your industry. Whether it's organizational advice from lawyers or accountants, or more visionary lessons that you can gain, be open to learning from everyone you can.

Be realistic about what this means for your relationships and your other priorities.  There is a lot you should consider initially, such as not having a social life, whether your significant other can take the stress or cope with the time commitment it is going to take to succeed and being okay with the financial ramifications.  Knowing that your support network is 100% on board really enables you to continue giving your all to your organization.   

What is the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning?

Predictably, I check my email and soccer news from Europe since scores and highlights have posted while I’ve been asleep.  Past that, I am a huge fan of the game. My relationship with the game has evolved from less of a fan and coach into more of a developmental perspective.

What does your day consist of – how many hours are you “in the office” or “on the field”?

I’ll do admin work, meetings with partners, parents or potential investors. I always make sure that all three of our employees go out on the field for at least two hours.  It’s important and intentional, as it has a very motivating and reenergizing effect.  Plus, the kids are absolutely thrilled to see us.  Regardless of what kind of day we had before then, the kids’ attitudes can wipe the slate clean.

If you could write a letter to the person you were 10 years ago, what advice would you give?

I took school for granted. If I had known better, I would have taken better advantage of all of the resources in front of me. That’s what I teach our kids.

How do you spend your down time? What helps you relax?

Highway-1, whether you go north or south of San Francisco, is my favorite getaway with plenty of fun little towns to explore. There is a bridge near Big Sur that is my favorite piece of coast line.  There’s also an amazing hotel in Pacific Grove, near Monterey, where the cell phone reception is spotty at best and there aren’t TVs in the rooms. It’s a great way to disconnect.

What are you most proud of?

Founding Project Vega with my brother, John. I had many warnings about working so closely with a family member, but it’s been a really enjoyable experience. I’m proud of working with and solving issues with kids while at the same time being able to do it with family.

One of First Republic’s values is ‘Do the Right Thing.’  How does this value apply to your business/life?

Our guiding principal is ‘do what is best for the kids.’  That is core to our business, as it is with First Republic.  Doing the right thing isn’t about our ego or our prestige, but what is best for the kids: their development, self-esteem and academic success.

What is your favorite book, newspaper, magazine or business journal you absolutely have to read?

One of our board members, Daniel, turned me on to the Little Book of Talent by Daniel Coyle. It’s a quick read broken into 52 tips for improving skills in sports, math, business and more.

Do you have a favorite app?

SoundCloud. It’s free music, one of several options, but I love it.

Last thing you do before bed?

Something work oriented and then a bit of TV – most likely Top Gear, an English car show on BBC America.  It’s hilarious.

The views of the authors of these articles do not necessarily represent the views of First Republic Bank.