A 15th Anniversary Retrospective from our first two Executive Directors – David Wittkowsky (in red) and Linda Springer (in blue):
What drew you to SVP Cleveland initially? How did you hear about us?
DW: I was informed about SVP by a good friend who knew that the founders were looking for a director. I was intrigued by the model of engaged philanthropy, and was impressed during my interviews by the passions and enthusiasm of the founders. I spoke with a few foundation leaders in the community, and they encouraged me to pursue the opportunity. One called SVP “the most interesting new development in Cleveland philanthropy in a long time”
LS: I’ve always embraced the notion of continual improvement, and when I learned the mission of SVP, I was attracted to it immediately. The idea of working with nonprofit leaders who wanted to bring positive change to their organizations was an exciting challenge. Then, as I met Partners, I was impressed by their integrity and intelligence and recognized our shared, genuine desire to make Cleveland stronger by using our skills to support nonprofits. SVP was also an opportunity to learn about and become more engaged in our community, and that was another attraction
I learned about SVP through Kittie Warshawsky, a former colleague of mine at Case, who was a Partner co-chair of the search committee for SVP’s new ED in summer 2004 after David W headed to Chicago to pursue his MBA at Kellogg. Kittie encouraged me to apply for the position. After a couple interviews with individual Partners, I was interviewed by the six-person committee in the living room at SVP at the League House.
What were some of your initial challenges at the beginning of your tenure as ED?
DW: The first challenge was simply establishing a professional home for the organization. Through some networking, I learned about available space in the Junior League building in University Circle. Initially this was going to be incubator space, available to us only for about two years. But the location has served SVP for close to 15 years now. Also, support from Adcom Communications provided us with our first logo and branding, and that was helpful in establishing SVP as an intentional and serious funder among Cleveland’s very well-established grantmakers.
LS: Our initial goal was to grow the Partnership from the 38 individuals when I started in November 2004. Partners were initially reluctant to “ask friends for money.” But once our Partners recognized that inviting their friends to join SVP was an invitation to be a part of something powerful and meaningful, and not the same as asking for money, they embraced it. Our Partnership grew to 78 individuals before the financial crisis led to a bit of a drop-off.
What were some unique challenges near the end of your tenure?
LS: The financial crisis definitely created challenges. Our partnership numbers dropped, but every cloud has a silver lining! The opportunity in that situation led us to re-evaluate our financial model and make changes that brought about greater diversity of age, economic levels, and race that have strengthened our Partnership. I especially love the way our age diversity strengthens us. The younger Partners value the wisdom and experience of the mature Partners, and they, in turn, love the energy and fresh ideas that the younger Partners bring. During our leadership transition, we began developing our recruiting events to include the “do-what-we-do” element, and thanks to Hilary’s direction, that appears to be working!
What are two Investee stories that really stick with you to this day?
DW: Both Youth Opportunities Unlimited and Near West Theatre really understood the nature of SVP’s engaged philanthropy model. They embraced the idea of combined funding and consulting support, and submitted proposals that had the potential to significantly advance their organizations. SVP partners were enthusiastic about partnering with these nonprofits, and made some important contributions to their growth.
LS: Near West Theatre: Our Lead Partner, Kevin Shaw, helped focus attention on finances and turned the budget from being in the red to having a surplus. Toward the end of that engagement, Stephanie left a voice message of thanks saying, “It is such a new day!”
- E CITY (before it merged with Y.O.U.) staff told us that they initially were reluctant to trust us, but we won them over when they realized that our Partners were the only people they knew besides staff who gave 110%!
The objectivity that our Partners offer as an outside viewpoint can be powerful. We were working with Famicos Foundation to clarify its value proposition. As they explained their programs, it became crystal clear to us that what differentiated Famicos from other CDCs were the services they provided to homeowners. Famicos did not just help people get into homes, it provided wrap-around services that helped them STAY in their homes, and their retention rates proved it worked.
What are you proudest of from your tenure? (this can be more than one thing)
DW: First, the Partners and I were able to develop the various tools and materials necessary to allow nonprofit organizations to understand the SVP model and participate in a transparent grant application and selection process. Those tools and materials helped to build SVP’s reputation within the nonprofit community very quickly. Second, we were awarded various grants to fully fund the general operating costs of SVP for the first five years, so that Partners’ contributions could be dedicated exclusively to making grants to Investees.
LS: bigBANG! was initiated. Starting from scratch to conceptualize what we wanted the event to look like and what we wanted it to accomplish was a challenge. The energy of that first event was palpable, and we knew we had a winner worth repeating. I love how we evaluate and tweak it (moving from an all-day event to an evening event, for example). bigBANG! 2016 was fresh and different, incorporating elements we talked about but couldn’t include in the first event, like the “do-what-we-do” component.
Our Partners like to learn! Through the years, we’ve had compelling education events for Partners, Investees, and the community. We held events to learn about:
- issue areas that our Investees addressed such as early childhood education, issues related to K-12 education, poverty, and violence as a public health threat, etc
- important community issues such as building a green economy, the role of the arts in economic development, the Gordon Square Arts District, the history of MetroHealth Medical Center and the evolution of the medical home, and using market forces for the social good
- nonprofit management/capacity building topics, such as life cycles of nonprofits, collaboration among nonprofits, engaging the board in fundraising, outcomes measurement, advocacy, social media for nonprofits
- philanthropy such as special issues for family foundations, corporate philanthropy
Partner engagement was (and continues to be) high with Partners actively working with Investees, planning and attending education events, coaching bigBANG! presenters, and serving on the Investment Team to select our next Investee.
What are some examples of ways in which our Partners evolved through their involvement with SVP?
DW: There were Partners who joined the organization with just a cursory understanding of the SVP model, but then became thoroughly engaged when they participated in the grantmaking process. Often, it was through getting to know potential Investees during application review that Partners would commit to serving as consultants and even Board members. This kind of engagement was exciting and infectious.
LS: The Partnership as a whole has grown in its ability to understand the issues facing nonprofit organizations and the ways SVP can be helpful, which comes into play as we select our Investees.
As Partners learn more about nonprofits, they come to understand the value of unrestricted contributions and the importance of adequate funding for the operations of the organization, in addition to funding for the programs. They understand that to be effective in running the programs that carry out the mission, the nonprofit needs sound computer systems, needs to do marketing, needs to pay for fundraising and grant writing, and needs to offer competitive wages and benefits to attract and keep a strong staff. No money, no mission.
How are YOU different as a leader (or, if you prefer, more generally as a person) because of your experience as one of SVP Cleveland’s EDs?
DW: I feel very lucky to have been part of SVP from almost the beginning. The founders and early Partners were impressive individuals with a shared passion for philanthropy and the future of Greater Cleveland. I appreciate the friendships which were established then, and which continue today.
LS: During my time at SVP, I had the opportunity to observe a variety of leadership styles among our Investees and our Partners. I had the chance to serve as the ED with five board presidents and to move our organization forward with their priorities. With all of the Partners, I was fortunate to work with people of high integrity, who have strong convictions, but who are willing to listen and learn from one another.
What do you wish everyone knew about SVP?
DW: I would like more people to know that there are many ways to be part of SVP, and that the organization serves the community and its Partners in a variety of meaningful ways. It’s tough to put that information into a brochure; current Partners are SVP’s best champions and advocates for continued and growing impact.
LS: As one of our Partners once advised a newcomer to Cleveland, the best people you’ll ever meet are in SVP. SVP attracts people who like to learn and grow, and the opportunity to do that is at least as valuable as what we give in the form of our financial contributions and our expertise. To be able to both grow and give in a community of engaged, smart people is unique.