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Social entrepreneurs setting up shop

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By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — After a 20-year career in commercial real estate, Will Miller retired from Beacon Partners in Charlotte at the end of 2003 and spent last year studying how to get more personally involved in philanthropy.

“I was really frustrated with my philanthropic efforts,” says Miller. “I wanted them to be more significant.”

During 2004, Miller learned about Social Venture Partners International, a Seattle-based network of local groups that enlist entrepreneurs who pool their giving, and provide grants and business expertise to local causes.

Miller now has signed on as the unpaid executive director for the just-launched Social Venture Partners Charlotte.

SVP Charlotte is the 24th affiliate of the network, which grew out of a group founded in Seattle by entrepreneur Paul Brainerd after he sold software-maker Aldus to Adobe in 1994.

More than 1,600 donors have contributed to the network’s 23 affiliates, which have invested hundreds of thousands of volunteer hours and $17 million in 200 local organizations.

Miller aims in the new affiliate’s first year to enlist at least 25 donors, each agreeing to contribute at least $5,000 a year for at least two years.

He already has recruited a board that includes Bobby Vagt, president of Davidson College; Mike Elliott, a principal in the Wakefield Group, a local venture-capital firm; and community activist Lynn Crutchfield.

The new affiliate also has received a $25,000 startup grant from the Foundation for the Carolinas, which is providing office space for Miller.

The focus of the new group, which is operating as a donor-advised fund of foundation, will be to spur and support risk-taking among nonprofits, and to help them strengthen their organizational and program “capacity,” Miller says.

“The people who are attracted to this concept tend to be successful entrepreneurs in the community,” he says. “The reason they’re successful is they weren’t afraid to take risks. To get rewards, you have to take risks, and the greater the risk, the greater the reward that’s out there.”

But the nonprofit world generally does not encourage or reward taking chances, he says.

“We will enable them to take risks,” he says.

Like donors at other affiliates, SVP Charlotte donors also will put their business know-how to work for nonprofits they support, providing advice on topics such as marketing, technology, finance, accounting, and fund and board development.

The affiliate also will adopt a combination of approaches that other SVP affiliates have used in choosing causes to support.

Based on a city-funded program in Hampton, Va., for example, SVP Charlotte is teaming up with the Council for Children to encourage county leaders to form a public-private partnership to provide comprehensive services to support first-time parents throughout the community and help prepare their children to enter kindergarten, says Miller, who has served on the boards of several local charities serving children and families.

In addition to recruiting donors to support the early-childhood effort, SVP Charlotte also will look for donors who themselves will decide which causes to support.

“We have no shortage of unmet needs in our community,” Miller says.

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