By Nell Edgington
In this month’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Jen Ratay. Jen is executive director of the Silicon Valley Social Venture Fund – SV2, a community of families and individuals who come together to learn about effective giving and impact investing while pooling their resources and skills to support promising social ventures. Prior to taking the helm of SV2, Jen served as program officer at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation where she led its Organizational Effectiveness grantmaking program that helps grantees build high-performing organizations.
Nell: SV2 is a strategic partner of the Social Venture Partners network of affiliates across the country that fueled the development of the venture philanthropy model of making large investments of money and expertise to grow proven nonprofits. The venture philanthropy model is almost 20 years old now, where do you think it stands? What have you learned and where do you think venture philanthropy goes from here?
Jen: Twenty years ago in the heart of Silicon Valley, SV2’s founder Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen launched a team sport approach to grantmaking that pooled donor resources for investment in promising nonprofits. Laura and her peers went beyond pooling monetary donations and invested their time and professional skills to help high-potential nonprofits build strong organizations and scale their impact.
From its earliest days, SV2 focused on finding and funding innovative nonprofits poised for dramatic scale, creating a philanthropic version of venture capital. SV2’s giving approach, along with the broader Social Venture Partners network it helped inspire and now partners with, helped catalyze the global movement known as venture philanthropy.
Not unlike venture capitalists, venture philanthropists believe the success of a great idea is contingent on building a leadership team that can effectively execute against a compelling plan. Key elements of the venture philanthropy approach include offering larger and longer-term grants to support nonprofit growth and core operations, tying continued funding to outcomes and measurable results, and providing coaching and management assistance to nonprofit leaders.
As venture philanthropy has evolved over the years, we’ve learned a number of lessons.
First, venture philanthropy’s historical focus on investing in individual organizations, while important, has rarely been sufficient to drive major paradigm shifts or sustained systems-level change. Achieving transformative impact often requires strengthening the capacity of networks and social movements and engaging government and the business sectors in addition to scaling high-performing nonprofit organizations.
Second, we’ve learned how essential it is for nonprofit CEOs to not just be strong organizational managers but also highly-collaborative network leaders and movement builders, a different skillset altogether.
Additionally, venture philanthropy, which resonates with many Silicon Valley professionals, is not a perfect analog for investing in nonprofits. To be effective, donors must understand that nonprofits differ from for-profits in many meaningful ways including governance, funding flows, scaling challenges, organizational culture, and what it means to attain financial sustainability. It takes time to understand these complexities and execute well – whether as an individual donor or as part of a collaborative donor group like SV2.
Looking ahead, I’d be surprised if we don’t see continued rapid growth in venture philanthropy, as wealth transfers from one generation to the next and Millennials and other new philanthropists seek high-impact ways to put their wealth to work for social value creation. As part of this growth, the hands-on venture philanthropy model with its focus on experiential grantmaking and donor learning continues to be an attractive entry point for emerging philanthropists, whether in Silicon Valley, Seattle, Bangalore or Beijing.
Nell: The philosophy behind the venture philanthropy model is that we should scale proven solutions, but significant growth to nonprofit organizations is tricky because often those organizations lack basic capacity. When does scaling make sense and how can funders effectively support it?
Jen: Yes, scaling nonprofits – even those with proven program outcomes – can be tricky.
For early stage nonprofits, there’s often a capacity building Catch 22 – a nonprofit needs basic organizational capacity to be able to step back from the daily treadmill of client needs and service delivery to invest in strengthening the organization and laying a foundation for future growth.
Compounding this, nonprofits don’t currently work within a well-functioning social capital market that supports organizations through each stage of growth. While making a large impact does not necessarily require a large organizational budget, nonprofits do need a reasonable level of revenue to develop certain core capabilities. The majority of nonprofits also face what has been termed the “social capital chasm,” the huge gap between their current budget and the $10 million or more they would need to move toward full scale.
On top of these financing barriers, compensation for nonprofit employees typically lags behind – sometimes far behind — that offered by foundations and for-profits. There’s no equity for nonprofit founders or executives, which, in highly competitive labor markets like Silicon Valley, can make attracting and retaining top talent a challenge.
And don’t get me started on the nonprofit overhead problem – our sector’s wildly unhelpful myth that at least 85 percent of an organization’s income should go toward programs rather than core operations. This myth is not only illogical, but damaging, as it constrains organizational growth and impact that hinges on strategic investments in infrastructure, people, processes and capabilities.
Despite all this, candidates for nonprofit scaling do exist. Common across them, they have promising programs based on early evidence of impact and compelling business models. They have strong, connected boards of directors and leaders who are coachable, collaborative and brave. Perhaps because of these qualities, these organizations also have the ability to attract talent and new sources of funding over time in competitive human and social capital markets.
Funders can help by playing the higher risk role of “Big Bettor”. A funder willing to make a significant multi-year investment in a promising small or mid-sized nonprofit organization can help them prepare to cross that daunting social capital chasm. These funders clear the way for other funders, signaling an investment in the organization is worth the risk. Early Big Bettors who help a nonprofit prove its model make the waters safer for other grantmakers to jump in.
Nell: The SV2 model is a bit different than other Social Venture Partner models, how does geography play into this? Do you think Silicon Valley funders think about philanthropy and the nonprofit sector differently, and if so how?
Jen: I do think Silicon Valley funders tend to think somewhat differently about philanthropy and the nonprofit sector.
In my experience with Silicon Valley’s giving culture, it’s not uncommon for donors, particularly those coming from the technology sector, to prioritize clear, measurable social impact, innovative or disruptive products and services, tech-enabled platforms, and a lean startup management approach to social change efforts.
On the nonprofit side, we have a crisis in Silicon Valley.
Local community organizations are struggling amidst a perfect storm of increased demand for their services, exorbitant operating costs, and competition for staff talent in one of the tightest labor markets in the country.
Silicon Valley is ground zero for income inequality. Skyrocketing wealth, including 76,000 millionaires and billionaires who live in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties alone, is found alongside rapid displacement of vulnerable families. Even with the nearly $5 billion boom in philanthropy from 2008-2013, 30 percent of Silicon Valley residents require some form of private or public assistance to get by. One in three local kids aren’t sure where their next meal will come from.
SV2 Partners, Alexa Cortes Culwell and Heather McLeod Grant, recently authored a report, The Giving Code: Silicon Valley Nonprofits and Philanthropy, that is elevating an important discussion around the region’s prosperity paradox. This data-rich report shines a light on a sobering donor knowledge gap around acute local needs and understanding of the local nonprofit ecosystem. Much of Silicon Valley donors’ philanthropy flows out of the region.
Alexa and Heather’s research also found a two-way empathy gap between donors and nonprofits. The reality is that Silicon Valley donors and nonprofit professionals tend to run in different circles, and they often have very different life experiences.
The Silicon Valley prosperity paradox, knowledge and empathy gaps are adding urgency and ambition to SV2’s work.
Our mission is to unleash the resources and talents of Silicon Valley to support promising social ventures to achieve measurable impact. An increasingly important role for us is to nurture empathy within and across Silicon Valley. As part of this, we’re sparking tough conversations via experiential poverty simulations and workshops with Silicon Valley donors on topics such as redefining power and privilege in the funder-fundee relationship and philanthropy’s role in advancing equity.
SV2 differs from SVP Network affiliates in that SV2 expanded beyond grantmaking to nonprofits to also invest in mission-driven for-profit companies and provide our donors experiential learning in impact investing. I’m seeing emerging Silicon Valley donors using both grants and investment tools to drive social change, following in the footsteps of Silicon Valley philanthropic leaders like Pam and Pierre Omidyar and Jeff Skoll, one of the earliest SV2 Partners.
I’ve also observed a trend of Silicon Valley donors thinking hard and in a more sophisticated way about where exactly their money sleeps at night. Are donors’ financial assets invested in alignment with their core values and social impact priorities? If the answer is no, local donors I work with are increasingly motivated to change this.
Nell: Prior to running SV2 you ran the Hewlett Foundation’s Organizational Effectiveness program investing in the capacity of nonprofit organizations, so building strong nonprofits is obviously near and dear to your heart. What holds nonprofits and their funders back from creating stronger organizations and how do we get beyond that?
Jen: In my view, trust is the critical lubricant between funders and grantees on the path to building strong, sustainable nonprofit organizations.
Yet it can be hard – even scary – for nonprofit leaders and funders to have courageous, authentic dialogue amidst the very real funder-fundee power dynamics.
This was equally true when I was a grantmaker at the Hewlett Foundation as it is now that I’m on the other side of the table as a nonprofit leader responsible for raising SV2’s entire operating budget each year to make payroll and fund SV2’s learning programs and grantmaking.
When striving for authentic relationships, it helps to consider this: Does it feel like we as funders and grantees are accountable to each other? Or is the grantee solely accountable to a funder? When something goes wrong with a grantee organization, does a funder run away or dig in and engage more deeply? Do funders think to ask a grantee “Is this an effective use of your time?” And respect it when the answer is no?
Whether in Silicon Valley or elsewhere, funders can help build strong organizations by making certain to keep their net grant high — that is, the net actual value of the grant to a nonprofit after subtracting out the costs to the nonprofit of applying for and reporting on the grant.
I’d also encourage funders of all stripes to consider doubling down versus abandoning organizations during leadership transitions. Leadership transitions are inevitable milestones that all organizations face, and are a high-stakes and often fragile time for nonprofits. These transitions can also be a time of revitalization and great opportunity for a nonprofit to evolve toward its strongest and highest-impact future.
Photo Credit: SV2
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