Venture Philanthropy Magic in the Rocky Mountains

By:Rebecca Arno and Angelle Fouther Issue: Collaborative Leadership Section: Community

Social Venture Partners

ELK Winter Ecology

Seattle in 1997 was a pretty heady place. The dollars flowing into the tech sector were dizzying, and engineers and entrepreneurs found themselves with the resources to make choices about their futures. One such visionary was a man named Paul Brainerd, who had coined the term “desktop publishing” and created a program called Pagemaker. When his company, Aldus, merged with Adobe Systems, he was ready to step into a new life, one dedicated to the community.

Brainerd and his friends in the tech world had seen the power of venture capital in transforming businesses, growing them from promising start-ups to successful pubic companies. They wondered if that model could be applied in the nonprofit sector, where the goal wasn’t bringing a product to market, but helping address social issues like education and the environment. They brought together a group of business leaders to make highly engaged investments of money, resources, and expertise in local nonprofit organizations, with the aim of developing their capacity and sustainability. They called this group Social Venture Partners (SVP).

Paul Shoemaker, formerly a worldwide manager with Microsoft, came on staff to lead SVP Seattle in 1998. He recalls that Denver was one of the earliest cities to reach out to try and replicate the model. “I still remember the first call I got from Denver, back in 1999, after someone had read about SVP in Hemispheres magazine.” That person was Marlene Casini, then-Vice President of Advancement and Communications at The Denver Foundation. She saw the model’s promise for bringing new philanthropists into the work of nonprofits and for improving nonprofit business practices.

This year, SVP Denver celebrates its 10th anniversary, still operating as a program of The Denver Foundation, and Shoemaker marvels at their success. “Denver was the second or third city to contact us about making SVP happen in their community and here they are, 10-plus years later, going strong. Over those 10 years, we’ve added 23 cities and up to 2,000 members worldwide. Denver was one of our trailblazers.” Today, SVP International has chapters in the United States, Canada, and Japan. And Denver is still one of the stars.

SVP Denver: A model for direct involvement

So how, exactly, does SVP work? It starts with the partners. In Denver, each partner contributes a tax-deductible gift of at least $2,500. Together, they select grantee organizations to invest in each year. SVP Denver supports organizations whose missions include early childhood education, K-12 education, and youth development. Once an organization is selected, partners work with the staff and board members of the organization to increase its capacity—the key to the SVP model.

The first half of the SVP model is that the Partners make investments in their grantees that build the long-term capacity of the organizations, rather than short-term projects or programs. Capacity-building investments include cash grants, skilled volunteers, professional consultants, leadership development, and management training opportunities.

The second half of the SVP model is the mobilization of a community of lifelong, informed, and inspired philanthropists. Through engagement with grantees, personal connections, and participation in education events, partners are inspired to reinvest and make new investments in organizations associated with SVP as well as more broadly. Partners also take part in running SVP Denver itself, which has only one full-time staff person.

“I got involved because I loved the idea of coming together with like-minded individuals to use our skills to help grow nonprofits,” says Bill Ryan, one of several founding partners of SVP Denver. He likes the leverage offered through the partnership model. “I recognized that if I gave $1,000, it would not be as impactful as a partnership like SVP Denver getting 20 people together to give an organization $20,000.”

Mark Berzins, another early partner and owner of the Little Pub Company, agrees. “If all of us wrote a check to our favorite charities, it would make less of a difference. Some of the best people I know in Denver I met through SVP because they are givers and do-gooders. It’s sort of like the Justice League but we don’t wear capes or ride around in invisible airplanes.”

Over the past 10 years, SVP Denver has given $576,250 in grant awards, and offered the volunteer time and talents of 200 partners like Ryan, and Berzins, to seventeen local, innovative, youth-focused nonprofits. While Denver Foundation staff members have been instrumental in the development of the program, a full-time professional executive director oversees activities and helps the partners accomplish their work.

SVP Denver partners come from a wide range of backgrounds, representing nearly every aspect of the business community, from marketing to financial services to telecommunications. A number of partners are professional women who are now home with kids. They have connected with SVP as a way of using their knowledge and capabilities for the greater good. All SVP partners know that they have more to give than money, and the executive director helps them connect their talents and skills with nonprofits that can benefit from their help.

“The role of SVP is not one of a traditional funder where you give a grant and ask the organization what it did with the money 12 months later,” says Lisa Fasolo Frishman, previous SVP Denver executive director. “Our partners make the grant and work with the boards and staff every step of the way. "Grantees drive the process, but we are there to help and sometimes to push them past their comfort zones. This is what makes good organizations better.”

Or, as Bill Ryan says, “We not only teach them to fish, but we teach them to catch bigger fish.”

Does venture philanthropy make a difference?

To find out the impact of SVP Denver, one has only to ask the nonprofits that have received support. “We applied for a grant because we were in a growth stage and wanted help to build capacity to sustain that growth,” said Trish Thibodo, Executive Director of PlatteForum, a 2008-2009 SVP Denver grantee. Trish said that with the help of SVP partners, they developed their fundraising strategies, board, committee structures, and personnel, as well as establishing best practices. “The process matured us as an organization, and I really think that as we’ve gone through the recent downturn of the economy, our partnership with SVP has put us in a position to ride the storm and to be even more effective.”

Fasolo Frishman explains that SVPs are strong supporters of general operating grants. “We let the grantee decide how to spend the money we award, but then we hold them accountable for results. Because we are making an investment not only of financial resources, but of expertise and business practices, we help the organization to assess their needs, address them, and use the power of the Partners network to effect real change.”

Other SVP Denver grantees have included Environmental Learning for Kids, Front Range Earth Force, YouthBiz, and the Young Philanthropists Foundation.

Colorado MESA (Mathmatics, Engineering, Science, Achievement) has profited tremendously from the involvement of SVP Denver. Grants helped MESA hire a grant writer to secure more funding, which resulted in over $700,000 of additional revenue being raised. These funds have allowed MESA to hire additional staff and expand their program. SVP Denver Partners then helped MESA develop a plan to expand their program to include the health sciences.

A model for growth and expansion

SVP Denver continues to grow, even expanding partner levels, during the 2008-2010 economic downturn. One reason? Metro area businesses have chosen to sponsor SVP Denver as an excellent way to involve and train up-and-coming executives in community service.

“Community involvement is important to us as a firm and to the professional development of our staff members,” says Sarah Knight with Knight, Field & Fabry LLC, a Denver accounting firm. “We offered an SVP membership to our top managers as part of their compensation package. Both managers to whom we offered the membership jumped at the opportunity, knowing it was a launching pad for getting involved in the community and for meeting some of Denver’s best.” ReadyTalk, UMB Bank, Colorado Capital Bank, Occasions By Sandy, and Kaiser Permanente are among the businesses that also sponsor memberships for their executives.

Worldwide, SVP as an organization prides itself on helping partners develop as leaders and philanthropists even beyond their SVP activities. According to the most recent Report on Philanthropy Development Outcomes conducted by SVP International, 60% of SVP partners have increased their giving since joining, and 88% indicated that SVP significantly increased their community involvement.

This is certainly true in Denver. Several SVP Denver partners have served on grantee boards and other nonprofit boards as a result of their SVP service. Three SVP Denver partners, Mark Berzins, Sarah Bock, and Bill Ryan, are now members of The Denver Foundation’s Board of Trustees. Berzins chairs the Arts and Culture Grantmaking Committee; Bock chairs the Philanthropic Services Committee, and Ryan is slated to be Board chair in 2012.

“SVP offers its partners the opportunity to be part of a network, locally and internationally, of people who are trying to change the world,” says Fasolo Frishman. “These are the types of experiences that shape people’s lives, both personally and through the nonprofits we help. People don’t forget what they learn in SVP; they make lifelong friends and have experiences they’d never have anywhere else.”

As SVP Denver looks to its next 10 years, its volunteer leaders are more excited than ever about what lies ahead, and they invite new partners to join them. “As we hire a new executive director and consider the possibilities for the future, we know that nonprofits are hungry for what SVP can give, and volunteers are hungry for the training and involvement that only SVP can offer,” says Wes Butero, the current Chair of the SVP Denver board. “It’s our job to continue to bring the two together.”

Rebecca Arno is Vice President of Communications for The Denver Foundation. Angelle Fouther, Communications Officer of The Denver Foundation, contributed to this article.