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Will Miller: Venture philanthropy offers bridge

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Will Miller

Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Four years ago, Will Miller took a calculated risk, leaving a 19-year career in commercial real estate to take time to find his next calling.

For the past three years, Miller has headed a nonprofit that marshals business leaders’ money and know-how, and puts them to work to help nonprofits take calculated risks, better focus on their mission and operate more effectively.

“Nonprofits tend to be risk-averse and they frequently don’t think big enough, whereas in the business world, the only way to get ahead is to take risks, and the only way to sustain yourself is to think big,” says Miller, executive director of Social Venture Partners Charlotte. “We provide an opportunity for nonprofits to take risks because they can do it with our people and our money.”

One of 26 local affiliates of Seattle-based Social Venture Partners International, the Charlotte group has recruited 34 husband-and-wife pairs, each of which agrees to invest $5,000 a year for at least two years, and to volunteer with projects in which the group invests.

So far, selecting from projects in public education, affordable housing, health care and the environment, SVP Charlotte has invested in a project at East Mecklenburg High School to improve teacher recruitment, retention and enrichment, and in a city-wide collaborative effort to connect working-poor families with affordable housing and support services.

Miller says Social Venture Partners has allowed him to bridge the for-profit and nonprofit worlds.

A former partner in Beacon Partners, a regional real-estate development firm, Miller had spent eight years in the real-estate brokerage business and then 11 years in the real-estate development business.

He also had served as a board member and volunteer for nonprofits involved with children and family services.

“I wasn’t really sure when I left the real-estate business what my future held,” he says. “After 20 years, I had sort of done what I intended to do and had become stale.”

After spending some time “just recharging and clearing my mind so I could begin to see what might lie under the surface that would come to the surface when all the other noise stopped,” he says, he learned about Social Venture Partners.

“The venture philanthropy model was the key that unlocked everything for me,” Miller says. “It takes proven practices and provides a model for those to be played out in the nonprofit world.”

So after brokering and developing real estate, he says, he now brokers and develops human and social capital.

“It’s all about making a measured investment and begin held accountable for the results,” he says.

Compared to the business world, he says, it can be tougher to “keep score” and take longer to accomplish results at a nonprofit.

And unlike businesses, he says, nonprofits rely heavily on volunteers, and tend to bog down their boards in day-to-day tasks that should be the focus of the staff.

Nonprofit boards also can fall prey to “mission creep,” allowing process-oriented goals in areas such as fundraising, marketing and human resources to replace what should be a focus on the big picture.

“In business, it’s very clear who your customer is and it’s very clear that if your customer is not satisfied, your business will fail,” he says. “In the nonprofit world, it’s difficult to determine who your customer is, and consequently difficult to determine whether your customer is satisfied.”

SVP Charlotte, he says, aims to “help impart some discipline in the organizations we invest in, and that discipline will hopefully inspire those organizations to refocus on their core mission, which ultimately is serving their customers.”

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