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SVP Portland’s Impact Pact

Posted by Michael Castle

There’s a rumbling in my belly, and I’ve heard the same from many of you.

This is how CEO Mark Holloway addressed SVP Portland’s Partnership in September of 2010, in an unusually pointed address about the future of their Affiliate.

At the time, SVP Portland was on the cusp of its 10-year anniversary. It had come of age focusing its grantmaking and capacity building efforts on at-risk youth and families, and their community partners were clearly benefitting from the founding, time-talent-and-resources SVP model we’ve all come to know well. 14 of their original Partners were still engaged, 37 new ones had joined the previous year, and net Partner growth had jumped to nearly 40% over the previous two. The most recent Partner survey had shown a 92% satisfaction rate, and one would have been hard-pressed to deny that SVP Portland had become the center of venture philanthropy activity in the area.

So why the upset tummy — and the declaration of an all-out “gut check” for this very happy Affiliate community?

It seems to me that we’re on the precipice of something. Something big.


What had become clear to Mark is that SVP Portland, for all its wins, could be on track to become a “philanthropy club”, not an “impact hub”. Portland’s community partners were becoming healthier through the SVP model and the Partnership was pleased, but were they genuinely effecting the transformational change that had drawn them to the SVP movement in the first place? Was SVP Portland, in fact, failing its deepest community impact goals — one successful investment at a time?

Thus Mark’s belly rumbling and the bold decision that followed to completely reshape their giving model. Beginning with the definition of its BHAG — its Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal — Portland embarked on one of the bravest journeys we’ve seen in the SVP Network, risking a decade of hard-won achievement in the pursuit of a singular, powerful community impact objective.

Five years in, Portland decided it was time to share their story for the benefit of the Network, in all its “hairiness”. In October, SVP Portland and SVPI teamed up to stage the Portland Learning Lab, a first-of-its-kind Network gathering wherein participants from across the global Partnership put themselves in Portland’s shoes, pondered the nature of their own impact, and asked whether a BHAG may also be in their future.

The way we tried “baring all” at the Portland Learning Lab could very much have been the reality version of that dream where you’re in a crowd with no pants on.

A few minutes with Mark Holloway reveals that he isn’t the sort of person who is comfortable being comfortable. If the going is smooth, there’s a good chance something is being overlooked. While some might call this restlessness — or even perfectionism — those of us in the SVP Network recognize it as one of our most treasured values, going by any number of names as you explore Affiliate conscience statements across the globe. Be it “stretch”, “experiential learning”, “curiosity” or “risk”, it describes the unique synthesis of urgency, deep inquiry and innovation that SVPs everywhere bring to their communities’ most intractable problems.

The two-day Learning Lab came on the heels of SVP Portland’s Annual Partner Meeting, an event itself months in the making. After giving him a few weeks of much-deserved rest and reflection, I reached out to Mark to talk about the experience.

How did the idea for the Portland Learning Lab come about? Who was involved and what was the “spark” that let you know it needed to happen?

We have learned so much about the shift to a community impact-goal focus and we’re bullish on where where it’s going — with many stumbles along the way. Our chatter generated a lot of interest, curious questions, strange looks and even skepticism from SVP Affiliates and colleagues in recent years. We also got queries from colleagues over the years asking us to talk about what we’re doing. Those conversations got repetitive, so we figured doing something to tell the story of our journey and lessons learned would answer many of those questions. Moreover, we wanted sister affiliates to be doing this with us—we want a network of affiliates all over the world solving local problems—and our colleagues at SVP International thought sharing it in deep-dive learning forum would be great for everyone. That conversation happened over lunch in Portland last spring and the Learning Lab was born!


As you point out, the Lab was designed to elevate Portland’s journey to a network-level discussion. What would you say to other affiliates about “baring all” in a lab-similar format, in pursuit of fostering more impactful work across our global movement?

It was frankly really daunting at first to try to replay six or seven years of our lives. We were just living it all those year, not planning to teach others what we were doing! And it’s one thing to develop a timeline about what happened and when — it’s another altogether to do that in a way that questions what you did, what you learned, what you would do differently, and how you might advise others to do things better. But it was wonderful to reflect on it and see how far we’ve come. It also reminded me of the bumps along the way and gave me added confidence that we’ll get over the ones we’re dealing with now. The way we tried to “bare all” could very much have been the reality version of that dream where you’re in a crowd with no pants on.

Did you walk away with a favorite Lab moment?

My favorite was the end of the first day “fish bowl” session. It had been a long day, and in one place with no windows — albeit a wonderful community partners space, The Children’s Book Bank. We formed a giant circle of Learning Lab participants and another smaller one inside, with a few investor partners and community partners, who were provoked by questions from participants to talk to one another about their experiences of our community impact goal and activities. It was fascinating to hear those perspectives in conversation with one another and fun to hear the various directions our affiliates took the conversation. (NOTE: my positive memory of this may be swayed by the fact that I got to use a buzzer to invite people to come and go from the inner circle!)


Was the Lab a success? Would you do another one?

It was wonderful to have a group of people come together with a deep desire to learn. Not everyone came to replicate what we did, or even knew if they would gain valuable takeaways. We were concerned that we might not have anyone there; we know the value of our time and money for these trips! But we heard and saw that everyone did actually get something from the sessions and the time together, so that was wonderful. Finally, I always love our affiliate gatherings and I always want everyone to be together all of the time, so I would have loved to have everyone there for conversation about how we can build a deep, lasting and impactful community impact movement around the world through SVP. I trust we at the very least put some more fuel into that conversation with those present. If we can keep building that movement through more learning labs, we would do another one tomorrow. Well, OK — maybe not tomorrow!

Couldn’t make it to the Lab?

The SVPI Resource Center has you covered. We’ve put together some incredible materials to get you up to speed:

Want to know more?

If you think your SVP is ready to consider hosting a lab experience, contact Cathy Lehman, SVP international’s Director of Programs & Operations at cathy@svpi.org.

Michael Castle is SVP International’s Communications Manager

Reach out to him at michael@svpi.org


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