Venture partners aim to connect

By Todd Cohen

Social Venture Partners, a five-year-old effort to tap the wealth and know-how of donors to help nonprofits boost their internal operations has grown into a network of donor groups in 23 U.S. cities that now is looking for ways to strengthen itself.

Aiming to keep its operation lean, the network and its affiliates are developing high-tech and low-tech solutions to track, share and make better sense of what they’re learning through their work with donors and nonprofits.

“We need more bandwidth to get at how to do a more explicit, constant and strategic job and take what we’re learning and disseminate it,” says Paul Shoemaker, executive director of Social Venture Partners in Seattle.

The SVP network and its affiliates are using the Web, email and teleconferencing to talk to one another and exchange ideas and information. The network also plans to use software to quantify and measure the impact of its affiliates’ work.

Donors contribute $5,000 each to local affiliates and also act as grantmakers, selecting nonprofits to receive grants that typically average $30,000 a year for three to five years.

Donors also lend their business expertise to nonprofits that receive grants, advising them on topics such as marketing, technology, finance, accounting and fund and board development.

“We’re not about big dollars,’” Shoemaker says. “We’re more about the people.”

Most affiliates, which also might hire consultants to help nonprofits evaluate the impact of grants, employ staffs of one person or less.

“It’s a partner-driven model,” says Tom Donlea, director of Seattle-based Social Venture Partners International, the network of SVP affiliates that was formed in 2001.

SVP’s mission is to spur philanthropists to be more strategic in their giving, and to deliver strategic volunteer support to help nonprofits strengthen their organizational “capacity.”

Founded by entrepreneur Paul Brainerd after he sold software-maker Aldus Corp. to Adobe in 1994, SVP has recruited 1,800 donors, up 40 percent in the last 18 months.

Donors at SVP affiliates have invested $8.6 million and thousands of volunteer hours in 107 nonprofits.

SVP in Seattle, which as the oldest affiliate has raised nearly $6 million from 265 donors, made grants totaling $1.5 million in 2002 to 29 nonprofits.

The network, which has affiliates in Calgary and Vancouver and this year will add others in London and Brisbane, Australia, is looking for ways to strengthen communications and help affiliates share what they have learned.

To build their organizations, for example, most affiliates used “SVP-in-a-Box,” a Web-based document developed by the Seattle affiliate spelling out how it was created.

Using that document, affiliates recruit partners, who pool their money and invest in and volunteer for nonprofits. The affiliates help donors learn about philanthropy, family giving and community issues.

Some affiliates add to that basic model. The Kansas City affiliate, for example, won federal approval to make loans at low or no interest to nonprofits, with donors acting as loan officers and providing technical assistance on business development.

But no one in the network has collected or summarized the separate strategies pursued by individual affiliates.

So the network is developing version 2.0 of “SVP-in-a-Box,” aggregating its affiliates’ combined experience into a “best-practices” document that will be available online in July.

The network’s Web site at already features a password-protected “affiliate zone” that individual affiliates use to post documents and PowerPoint presentations highlighting best practices on topics such as recruiting and educating donors and developing a process for donor committees to make grants.

To help affiliates learn from one another, Donlea convenes a one-hour teleconference every week or two that focuses on topics such as helping donors create personal giving plans and involve their children in philanthropy to helping nonprofits be more effective.

Using a product known as Spiderphone, the network records the calls, including related PowerPoint presentations, and has created an archive of the teleconferences on its Web site.

The network uses another product, known as realityfusion, to run Web conferences for affiliate staff equipped with Web cameras and headsets.

It publishes an email newsletter and listserve, and documents the listserve’s email traffic, posting summaries that are organized by topic on its Web site.

And it is launching a pilot project with its Pittsburgh affiliate to test software that will track and measure the impact of its work with donors and nonprofits.

Ultimately, says Donlea, the network wants to find ways to “build communities of practice to strengthen the connections” among the affiliates.

“There needs to be a common thread,” he says, “so there’s trust and understanding between people who know how to reach out to one another and are comfortable asking for help.”

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