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Social Venture Partners Boulder County:
Getting to Fifteen

Click to download a concise history; with gratitude to the interviewees & all of SVP’s
founding, current and alumnus Partners.
Olga Heifets, author
December 2015

Seeds of an Idea

Andrew Currie had sold his company. Perusing the in-flight magazine between cities, he came across an article where a fellow named Paul Shoemaker described an effort in Seattle that he referred to as ‘venture philanthropy’. To Andrew, it “sounded like an amazing opportunity for a group of business people to learn about philanthropy, using business language.” The innovative model resonated, and Andrew filed it away for later, when his startup CEO brain might have more bandwidth to consider it.

Meanwhile, Josie Heath pondered how to better tap into the innovation and excitement of a town that prides itself on being, like other tech hubs, entrepreneurial. As President of The Community Foundation Serving Boulder County (TCF), she sought ways to channel that energy towards the nonprofit sector TCF is tasked with stewarding. When the same in-flight article made its way into her hands, an idea took root.

“The timing was right, with talent on one side, and need on the other,” says Josie. “Nonprofits wanted a more intensive investment of capacity building know-how, and the Social Venture Partners (SVP) model fit this needed niche.” The SVP model offered not only an attractive way for many to use their talents, but also a way for like-minded people to share values around the benefits of a strong community.

Curious to learn more, in 2000 Andrew emailed the in-flight article’s Paul Shoemaker. Paul was then the Executive Director of the Seattle SVP, and, reflects Andrew, “very generous with his time, describing the model and answering my questions.” Paul also shared he’d soon be in Denver, at a meeting about starting a SVP there, inviting Andrew to join and learn more.

Andrew did, attending alongside The Community Foundation Serving Boulder County Board member Amy Batchelor and TCF Vice President Lindsey Delaplaine. There, they learned how SVP strengthened local nonprofits, while offering the business community an opportunity to have more local impact.

Having served together on a local nonprofit board, Andrew Currie and Amy Batchelor had both experienced first-hand how basic business acumen and targeted technical assistance could help smooth the way forward for nonprofit organizations. “We saw a tremendous opportunity,” reflects Amy, “to help our local nonprofit community get more efficient in delivering their services.” Adds Andrew, “I wanted to learn and use my business skills, relationships, time and money like an angel investor does – but focused on what I really cared about.” Through SVP, he felt he could do just that.

From the beginning, interest in the concept was strong. Amy and her entrepreneur husband Brad Feld had consciously chosen Boulder after he sold his first company at age 27. Much like SVP, Amy notes “Brad’s company was about helping businesses be better at their business.” Amy became a strong advocate – seeing that the skills were there, and the model seemed a perfect fit for the needs of the Boulder County nonprofit sector.

Adapting the Model to Boulder County

Amy, Andrew, Josie, and Lindsey sat down to define the model locally. Retaining TCF’s geographic footprint for this capacity building effort made sense – Boulder County certainly had sufficient need and enough viable projects. Josie encouraged Andrew and Amy to form the Boulder County SVP as a donor-advised fund (i.e. dollars held and granted out based on donor wishes) of The Community Foundation.

“SVP would not exist in Boulder County if it were not for Josie Heath and Lindsey Delaplaine,” says Andrew. Amy agrees, adding that it was “Josie’s willingness to take the risk and provide the infrastructure; her belief that Andrew and I could make something good” that smoothed the way for a quick start. “Their support was crucial,” adds Amy.

“Taking on SVP was a no-brainer for The Community Foundation,” comments Josie. It gave donors the opportunity to more deeply engage with and understand Boulder County’s nonprofit sector. “An honest interchange on both sides, where both social entrepreneurs and nonprofits could teach each other was essential to success,” notes Josie. “Nonprofit capacity building was a huge love of mine, and something I was already doing,” says Lindsey, who Josie encouraged to spend staff time on SVP, adding, “The new ideas from smart, fun, energetic people who were drawn to the SVP model made it that much more exciting.”

The umbrella infrastructure The Community Foundation provided helped jumpstart this fledgling startup. “It meant we had a fast start out of the gate,” notes Amy. From phones, internet and meeting rooms, to a 501(c)3 designation, established bank account and even the staff to assist, SVP Boulder County could leapfrog the effort it’d otherwise take to launch. Lindsey would serve as part-time staff, with Amy and Andrew SVP Boulder County’s first ‘Partner’ members and co-founders. “We didn’t have to set up another nonprofit,” says Amy, “The Community Foundation’s stamp of approval meant a lot.”

While Denver’s SVP modified to match demographics and needs, SVP Boulder County opted to closely follow the tested Seattle model directly, adopting documents, guidelines and giving levels (e.g. a three year commitment, a $5,000 Partner donation entry point). “Boulder [County] was a group with a venture capital, technology start up, mindset. We took it lock-stock-and-barrel and [did] not reinvent the wheel, figuring we’d stay loose and free, experiment, and see what worked,” says Andrew. Adds Josie, “We decided to test the business model, then refigure later if needed.”

The Founding 25

To build momentum, Josie and Lindsey worked to identify well-matched Community Foundation donors for the effort. One-on-one meetings started solidifying the concept. Many of the entrepreneurs and creative minds approached to be founders saw themselves in this ‘new economy’ model for giving, drawn both by its technical and social characteristics.

“We wanted to engage the part of the entrepreneurial community that wanted to have impact with their giving,” says Amy Batchelor. “Despite our busy lives, SVP was about loving Boulder and wanting it to be as good as it could be.” Amy’s husband, Brad, dove in as an early advocate for this new model, getting out his personal Rolodex to recruit like-minded technology sector colleagues to the fold.

Andrew invited technologist Terry Morreale and entrepreneur husband Herb to join. “Starting something and influencing the process, the organization’s DNA; that was compelling. When you do that, it becomes just right for you,” says Terry, continuing “SVP was entrepreneurial, empowering and very connecting. Working with people who wanted to make change for our community in the same way, and knowing everyone has a voice – that kind of equitable process is so important, and very hard to find.”

In kind, Herb invited new-to-town, fellow tech entrepreneur Rich Hoops to the fold. Having first heard of SVP in Austin, Rich was drawn to the instant connection, smart people and aligned values SVP connected him with. SVP offered a “perfect opportunity to learn more about my new community, philanthropy, and nonprofits. The thing that really inspired me was using my time, not just my money – venture philanthropy gave me the chance to better appreciate nonprofit challenges, objectives and impacts. There’s no better training ground than SVP for that.”

Long-time philanthropists Dianne Ladd and Bruce Holland were other early invitees drawn to the effort. The former owner of Ecology House on Boulder’s Pearl Street, Dianne had long valued the adage of ‘think global, act local’. “The fact that SVP was part of something greater, and that our SVP was part of the genesis of something replicable across the world – that was really interesting,” says Dianne.

In addition to leveraging more than just their financial capacity to give, Dianne liked that SVP offered Partners “…choices in ways to get involved, leveraging talents and expertise, as well as several organizations to support. With SVP, people could choose and do as much, or as little, as they wanted.”

The first gathering of the recruited was scheduled for a frigid winter evening in February, 2001. Despite the weather, everyone invited was in attendance. “It exceeded expectations around how much interest there would be,” remembers The Community Foundation’s Lindsey Delaplaine. She continues, “Curiosity around the engagement piece led to the packed room. People were drawn to the idea of feeling like they could make a difference beyond donations; using their skills in a strategic way for the greater good.”

What started as a presentation meeting quickly turned into a brainstorm; “By their very nature of wanting to be engaged, these were folks who were ready to jump in,” remembers Lindsey. The hotel’s packed conference room was abuzz with ideas – which Boulder County nonprofits to help, what issue areas to focus on, when was the right moment for this sort of assistance, and more. Remembers Andrew, “Just like any startup is, there was good energy, good buzz. It was a fun meeting.”

The scrappy effort included a moment many fondly remember: during a discussion weighing investing in Nederland’s TEENS Inc, Brad stepped out to make a call. By phone that night, he not only recruited another SVP Partner, but also his Nederland-based mother to play Lead for this new investee…an as-of-yet undefined role for this barely-minted organization.

When the meeting wrapped that night, an initial Partner class of twenty-five families had selected five nonprofits (with Lead Partners for each) across three focus areas for SVP Boulder County’s first foray into the work.

Finding a Rhythm

In addition to directly benefiting Investees, philanthropic enrichment and education for Partners was an essential part of SVP. To learn what was needed for Boulder County, educational conversations with area nonprofit leaders were organized, helping Partners absorb expertise from those closest to it. Focus area teams would create presentations to pitch the partnership at large, who would vote on what to move forward. “I was floored that SVP’s philanthropic effort was based in research, not gut feeling. Doing it right – that was a big thing for me,” says Terry Morreale.

Evolution came quickly for the young effort. The Lead Partner role grew better defined, and as Partners offered targeted input and consulting, project team boundaries grew clearer. An Executive Committee formed, holding meetings monthly. An RFP (Request for Proposals) process emerged, enhancing voting based on focus areas and passionate Partners advocating for specific nonprofits. An evaluation committee formed, as well as an evaluation rubric, gauging how well applicants matched SVP’s partnership model.

“Quickly we learned we should never make an investment without having a Partner who’d be Lead. And we couldn’t just look at a nonprofit and say ‘they’re good’…other factors had to be in play,” says Andrew. “Those kind of things shaped us – the problem solving to make things work was what pushed us along.”

At the same time, the Lead Partner determined much of the shape a nonprofit’s SVP experience would take. While Lindsey offered Partners technical assistance and administrative support as needed, it was largely Partners themselves who determined the right sort of business support to offer the nonprofits. Some took a more analytical approach, while others a more relational perspective. Nonprofit engagements were vaguely assumed to last a few years, when the nonprofit would ‘graduate’ after their progress was reassessed.

Notes Lindsey, “It was a huge jump for the nonprofit community. The SVP model worked for some, but not others. They needed to be willing to have people come in and tinker with the organization, help them in ways they couldn’t do alone in-house.”

Those nonprofits that sought both the intellectual contributions SVP could make, as well as the financial ones proved to be the optimal fit. “The Partnership had the business acumen to work with organizations to help them become successful from a business standpoint, on financial management, board development, etc. That piece of the model was incredibly important to all of us,” says Terry.

On the Partner side, different ways to engage took shape too – with a guilt-free Partner model that segmented into ‘active’ and ‘supporting’ groups. Active Partners were those doing volunteer work, and using their skills helping an investee nonprofit, or SVP itself. Supporting Partners meanwhile may have lacked the time to get more involved, but they still liked the angel investing model SVP offered Boulder County’s social sector.

“Partners liked that their money would be well-used, go to an area of strategic impact with a vetted nonprofit, and stay in their own community,” says Andrew. “Having a trusted Lead Partner shepherding the movement of that nonprofit to a higher level of impact was just a smarter way to engage.”

Reaching an Inflection Point

By 2003 SVP had become a fully operational expression of what had just been an idea a few years before. As SVP was going strong in Boulder County, the SVP model was spreading nationwide. “To see a nonprofit change and feel like you’ve left something stronger is a great feeling,” says Lindsey, “We added real value to the groups we worked with, and were able to let people plug in in a way that worked for them.”

Wrote Andrew at the time in a letter to the Partnership: “We have learned the hard lessons you only learn hands-on, and we have so much to improve!” With a few years under its belt, and some processes in place, Partners had begun to formulate how best to “move beyond passion and get some infrastructure,” recalls Lindsey.

In its first three years, all donated dollars went to nonprofits, and with the exception of partial staff time from Lindsey, the organization was nearly volunteer run. What had drawn many to the model was deep impact, and the Partnership had quickly found investing in up to seven nonprofits spread available volunteer talents too thin. “With Board work, it’s about the organization from a higher perspective. People liked that SVP gave them more of a hands-on opportunity than you’d otherwise get,” remembers Diane Ladd.

As Executive Committee Chairs, leaders like Terry Morreale and Rich Hoops helped further codify and create the startup’s high-level infrastructure. “We shifted to more buttoned-up across the board – from nonprofit engagements, documentation, structure, better thought-out decisions and a commitment to smartly and stably scale growth. We got more professional in everything we did” says Rich.

The value committed staff lent the organization was brought into sharp focus when Lindsey announced her next step would take her away from landlocked Boulder to experience a more nautical life. “SVP was made up of entrepreneurs who understood that growth required money,” says Rich, continuing, “Overhead was a natural part of the consideration set, and we needed someone to steer the ship.” The right person would have that magic mix of creativity, entrepreneurship and the vision to increase impact for both Partners and Boulder County nonprofits.

Through a rigorous process, SVP’s Executive Committee found the right person in Janelle Weissman. A Boulder native and local nonprofit veteran with an interest in fundraising, grant making and community change, Janelle found the challenge SVP offered compelling. From 2003-2007, she would serve as SVP’s first Executive Director and refine how the organization harnessed the power of thoughtful, committed people with both intellectual and financial capital to give, and non-traditional grant-making, all in service of strengthening Boulder County nonprofits. “With Janelle,” says Diane Ladd, “we started to shift from an unstructured, loosey-goosey group of like-minded folks to something energized, structured and clear.”

One of the first Partner ‘units’ Janelle brought on board were Dan and Robin Catlin. Already engaged philanthropists in Boulder County, the Catlins were pursuing ways to get more sophisticated in their giving. Janelle’s description of SVP’s venture philanthropy model clicked instantly. Says Dan, “Right away I felt like every community should have a Community Foundation and an SVP. The Community Foundation is a traditional, critical knowledge source. What’s unique about SVP’s model is how they pull resources, share knowledge, impact policy, facilitate…all to grow and enhance nonprofits.”

As philanthropists, the Catlins felt drawn to SVP’s leverage, emphasis on demonstrated change for participant nonprofits, and the opportunity to go beyond donation-only giving. “SVP gives people a meaningful way to get involved in their community. The talent, leadership, capital, connections all come together in a really meaningful way,” says Dan.

Refining the Details

Finding a path forward between personal philanthropic interests, and Boulder County’s areas of highest need would define the next step in SVP’s maturation. And, with a few years under their belts, it had become clear that not all nonprofits were well matched to what made SVP’s model unique: consulting around organizational change, going beyond grant dollars alone. “We realized we needed to do this less haphazardly to have impact for nonprofits – these were the beginnings of the notion that capacity building was more important for SVP than the grant piece,” says Dan.

The Executive team, Janelle and other Partners dove into clarifying SVP’s investee engagement process, adding discipline to SVP’s nonprofit capacity building with refinements from application through selection, engagement into wrap-up. Reflects Rich Hoops, “It was critical for us to be diligent on the front end. We needed a commitment from both the Executive Director and the Board around the capacity building work, and the agreement they’d let us help deliver against that.”

What had started with passionate Partners advocating for worthy nonprofits matured into an annual selection cycle that required organizations to submit a formal Letter of Interest (LOI), then a proposal. Layered in was improved Partner education around pressing Boulder County issues to help drive selection, the evaluation of Partner capacity to take on the work in a meaningful way, and added rigor to what would be called the Portfolio Grants Committee (or PGC).

One example of that rigor was SVP’s refinement of an organizational capacity assessment tool (also called the “OCAT”), originally created for Venture Philanthropy Partners by McKinsey, then adapted for use across the SVP network. Early engagements had demonstrated the benefit a data-driven approach could lend to the SVP process. Says Terry Morreale, “It let us assess the viability of a nonprofit with some frequency along the way, and informed when they were ready to ‘graduate’.”

Partners in Boulder County craved even more objectivity, so Terry and Rich worked alongside Janelle to tackle that challenge with gusto. Research and brainstorms around what makes a nonprofit successful (e.g. board function, fundraising, board development, program budgeting, etc.) led them to add definition to the OCAT’s ratings, layering in unbiased measures against which each category could be judged. This added even more rigor and made this Excel-based nonprofit self-assessment tool that mapped a nonprofit’s strengths and weakness to a dashboard even less subjective.

Nonprofits appreciated the clarity the data offered in setting shared expectations, while mapping steps and goals looking forward. And, in obvious ways, the refinement impacted the consultative process, informing work plans with specific goals that set relationship expectations for both sides on the front end.

The SVP Partner experience matured as well. To augment the skills SVP could provide its Investees, a Fellows program supported by local foundations was added for those who lacked the funds but came with valuable skills to round out its consultative toolkit. Corporate Partnerships came soon after, allowing local businesses to impact the Boulder County community by leveraging the skills of staff in a tangible way. And, the philanthropic evolution of Partners was considered; how could SVP create and connect informed, lifelong philanthropists who give in a way that builds stronger communities and better, smarter nonprofits.

These changes culminated in the creation of SVP Boulder County’s first formal strategic plan in 2007. The plan emphasized growth – engaging more people, benefiting more nonprofits, and expanding ways to engage those nonprofits – and demonstrated the need for additional staff support. Around the same time as the plan was written, Janelle announced her departure from SVP. In earnest, the Executive Committee began what would be an intentional, six-month hiring process to find just the right mix of skills to fill her shoes. They found just that in Jennie Arbogash, who would serve as SVP’s first full-time Executive Director.

“Jennie blew us away with the mix of what she brought to the table,” recalls Rich Hoops. “With SVP it’s important to remember both sides of the transaction – what it’s like for a nonprofit, and a funder. Plus Jennie came with diplomatic skills well suited to the Partners.” He continues, “We knew we needed infrastructure to grow, but needed new revenue to do that. We saw Jennie’s hiring as additional capacity to take us to that next level.”

A Redirect After an Unexpected Bump

Jennie’s tenure strengthened the organization from its start; early contributions included reinforcing an already successful Investee process, enriching the Partner experience, continuing a strong relationship with The Community Foundation and expanding how SVP brought its expertise into the Boulder County community, beyond Investee nonprofits alone. “We evolved and grew, blossoming into something bigger,” says Terry Morreale.

Increased confidence helped Partners glimpse what SVP could be as an independent organization. Remembers Diane Ladd, “We started to feel that we could make that break – leave the nest and become our own 501(c)3, to do even more good.”

The 2008 stock market crash postponed any action on those nascent ideas however. Partner’s financial portfolios were hit hard, and SVP found its ranks decimated by 20% in a single month. A tightened budget forced SVP to look at its own sustainability, and think creatively to survive. Suddenly underfunded and under-resourced, the jolt helped SVP rebuild and re-vision what it could be moving forward. The remaining Partners, “…got a spark under them. Seeing each other as a team of like-minded people working towards a shared goal for our community enlivened SVP,” says Jennie.

Rather than continuing to serve just a few Boulder County nonprofits with a concentration of resources, Partners opted to differently allocate resources and bring SVP’s deep expertise to a broader group in smaller bites. With offerings like topical education sessions and long-form White Papers, SVP made its first strides into expanding its programming.

2010 saw SVP hosting the first of three annual Board Match events, educating local board members on governance responsibilities and connecting community members with nonprofits recruiting for board positions. In 2011, SVP teamed up with the Nonprofit Cultivation Center to host four workshops in the Boards Breakfast series for SVP’s first collaborative effort with another organization.

While these changes energized the group, the realization came that the business model wasn’t working. Solely funded by members with little income beyond dues, SVP was limited in how to expand services and visibility remaining a donor advised fund. Reflects Dan Catlin, “Separation from The Community Foundation was done very intentionally; it was about the vision and the path required for sustainability.”

SVP’s Partners voted to formally separate from The Community Foundation Serving Boulder County in 2012. The Executive Committee, now a ‘Board of Directors’ shepherded movement forward with careful consideration and deliberate planning. A strategic planning process yielded a roadmap for its first years as an independent organization, offering a breadth of strategically chosen programming to serve more nonprofits and supplement the continuation of ongoing deep support for a select small group of Investees.

Programming like BOARDS WITH BRAINS nonprofit governance education and a two-year multi-component social enterprise pilot continued SVP’s entrepreneurial thread, while expanded membership levels helped broaden its membership base. Specialized staff were added to further enhance the organization’s ability to deliver on the new strategic plan, and the organization received its official independent 501(c)3 designation from the IRS in early 2014.

“I think we’re going in a great direction, expanding our support for Boulder County nonprofits,” reflects Diane Ladd. “SVP is a growing force for good. When you empower someone in an organization, the ripple effect can change a community. Getting engaged in an organization like SVP only amplifies that ripple; that’s the leverage and amplification of SVP.”

Adds Dan Catlin, “I think we’re doing the right work; we’ve grown up a ton and learned so much about ourselves and our community. I’m proud to have contributed to something that lets people impact their community. As a Partner, I’m excited for what’s next.”

Over its first 15 years, 26 Boulder County nonprofits benefited from $4,500,000 (value based on 2015 consulting rate) of SVP’s in-depth consulting services (plus an additional $1,350,000 in grants to support that work). And, SVP’s efforts helping move organizations to be their best continues.

Nearly 100 individuals from across the years celebrated SVP’s 15th Anniversary at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art in September 2015. Gathered together were current and former Partners, representatives from Investee and alumnus nonprofits, participants in SVP’s expanded nonprofit programming, local government allies, four staff and others.

At fifteen, SVP is in many ways a well-established organization, while in others, still a startup. Its reinvention brings new challenges and opportunities, which the organization’s leadership are eager to take on.

SVP Boulder County continues to believe strong nonprofits deliver better results. Looking forward, and expanding beyond consulting, SVPs strengthening support will include:

It’s an exciting time for SVP. We’re eager to see what’s next!

~El Fin~