To celebrate our 20th Anniversary, we bring you a series on the history of SVP Portland. This is Part 1, which starts at the very beginning.
by Mark Holloway
In 1997, the original Social Venture Partners was born in Seattle, the concept of Paul Brainerd and a few other tech entrepreneurs who found themselves unexpected millionaires — for Brainerd, after the sale of his software company, Aldus Corporation to Adobe. The idea for SVP was simple enough: get thousands more people highly engaged in philanthropy with the models and skills they had already learned in business.
“It’s not about charity,” Paul told Susan Byrnes of The Seattle Times. “This is a more engaged giving style. If it’s done right, both sides end up with more in the end.”
Seattle SVP quickly began attracting more Partners. Soon afterward, others heard about the model and affiliates were started in places like Arizona, Silicon Valley, and Vancouver, BC. The model found especially fertile ground with tech entrepreneurs. It’s no surprise then that Eli Lamb, who had recently retired from Intel Oregon, found his way to an SVP Seattle meeting and learned about their unique model for giving not just financially, but also with time and expertise.
Eli’s friend and former Intel colleague, Boyce Smith, remembered, “Shortly after several of us Intel employees either retired or quit, we started getting together for lunch or cocktails as a social gathering. At one of the meetings, Eli asked if we had heard of ‘venture philanthropy.’ Most of us had not.” Being the organizer that he is, Eli invited SVP Seattle’s founding Executive Director, Paul Shoemaker, to make a presentation to the group. Paul ended with a classic entrepreneur’s ask: Are you in?
“A lot of us jumped on board,” Boyce said, “in part to just keep busy but also based on the concept. We thought we could make a significant impact. After all, the notion of helping nonprofits that were already doing good work to fix problems and improve their capacity sounded like a great idea.”
Thus, Social Venture Partners Portland was born, incorporated on December 20, 2000, with its first Partner donation from Ed Mueller for $5400 — $5000 for granting and $400 for “overhead.” Initially, the Portland Partnership was established through an advised fund agreement with the Oregon Community Foundation (OCF) and significant organizational support from Grantmakers of Oregon and Southwest Washington. The founding Board of Directors was Joe Barthmaier, Eli Lamb, Lynda Mueller, and Bill Zieverink, with Eli serving as the de facto founding (volunteer) Executive Director. Despite the recession of 2001, within six months 17 founding Partners had joined the affiliate, including Boyce and his wife, Lori. In 2002, SVP hired its first full-time Executive Director to lead and provide structure to the nascent organization.
“As we started to set up SVP Portland,” Boyce said, “we agreed our focus area would be ‘kids and education’ and our regional area would be Portland metro (Multnomah, Clackamas, and Washington Counties, as well as the Vancouver area).” After they established a process for finding organizations and making investment decisions, the Partners sent out their first requests for proposals to well over 100 local nonprofits; about 45 proposals came back. The Partners got together and selected two nonprofits as Portland’s first Community Partners [then called Investees]: Morrison Child and Family Services in SE Portland and Children’s Relief Nursery in North Portland.
Morrison was one of Portland’s largest nonprofits at the time, so many people found it an unusual first choice for the venture-related group. But the agency had merged with other nonprofits and found itself facing a thorny problem: the various computer systems didn’t talk to each other. As a mental health service provider, this was particularly inefficient and dangerous. They had to physically move medical records for treatment and billing from location to location and, with the increasingly electronic nature of healthcare in the early 2000s, they would be obsolete or priced out if they didn’t upgrade their systems. Being a software engineer, Eli again stepped in to lead a team of Partners working on the problem and, two years later, all Morrison’s computers were talking to each other.
The fruits of the SVP engaged philanthropy model became quickly apparent to Morrison and others. The Chief Information Officer at Morrison shared her gratitude in the final investment report of 2004: “SVP Portland was my ‘ray of hope’ when I saw the reality of what had to be done to implement the type of systems we were tasked to do. [Partners] came through quickly and efficiently with experienced, talented IT resources. We wouldn’t be where we are today organizationally or technologically without SVP.”
Children’s Relief Nursery, on the other hand, was a nascent nonprofit that was operating out of the basement of a church. When SVP invested they were getting ready to move to a new, permanent location in the St. John’s neighborhood. Among other needs and opportunities for Partners to build the relief nursery’s capacity, Boyce was asked to help plan and execute the move from the church to its new home. He not only chaired the planning committee, but also showed up on moving day to help them move in.
Boyce reminisced, “In both experiences, I found out that while the nonprofits had impressive skills to serve their clients, for the most part they did not have the capacity to make or implement changes to their facilities or structures.”
Within a year, $80,000 had been granted to these nonprofits from the first investment cycle after pooling philanthropic funds from the founding Partners. By 2004, SVP Portland completed the first round of three-year commitments to community-based organizations, each receiving skills and expertise paired with grants, resulting in more than $1.7M in total financial impact — a calculation based on the cumulative value received by the nonprofit Community Partner. SVP Portland also received an award from the growing SVP network for Outstanding Achievement in the Investment Process.
In 2005, with 52 committed Partners, SVP Portland spun off from OCF and became an independent nonprofit organization. It was also in 2005 that the Partnership incubated an effort that would itself soon become a new nonprofit, CASH Oregon. Partners serving on the child poverty-focused investment team in 2004 learned about the benefits of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the opportunity to ensure more eligible families in the region received the credit. In partnership with the local United Way, the IRS, and AARP’s Tax-Aide volunteers, SVP Portland launched a free tax preparation effort that would become CASH (an acronym for “Creating Assets Savings and Hope”). During SVP’s seven-year investment, CASH returned more than $168 million to eligible families and generated an economic return of more than $302 million for the Portland-area community — a 1765% return on SVP’s $170,000 cash grant investment.
Over the years, the Partnership shifted from solely volunteer powered to paid-staff leadership supporting the Partner volunteer’s efforts with Community Partners — as was happening throughout the SVP International network of affiliates (which reached 18 affiliates by 2006). By 2007, SVP Portland exceeded $1M in cumulative direct grants, $4.5M in total impact for the Community Partners, and hired a new Executive Director tasked with stabilizing and then growing the Partnership. With a dedicated Partner recruitment effort, 11 community investments in progress or completed, and some experimentation in the investment model, momentum was building.
Within a year, the Partnership stood on the cusp of a realization that would transform its focus in the Portland community and ripple throughout the global SVP Network. But that is a story for Part 2 of our series on the history of SVP Portland: The Big, Hairy Audacious Goal, aka the BHAG.