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Learning the Ropes of Engaged Philanthropy

Posted by Cecilia Garza


“I was kind of your typical high tech workaholic,” says SVP Partner Bill Ellis. “I did no giving back of personal time. All I did was eat, sleep and work.”

Pre-SVP, Bill served as chairman and CEO of several software and medical technology firms over the course of his career. Under the strains of a busy work life, he and his wife managed financial contributions scattered across a variety of organizations. His course changed, however, at retirement.

In 2000, he found himself at Cleveland High School where he’d been asked to chair the steering committee for the development of an infotech academy. That year the school became an SVP Investee and former Lead Partner Laura Yedwab came in to help make the most of the SVP relationship.

Laura was Bill’s first encounter with SVP. She was a Microsoft early retiree, MIT grad and brilliant software person, Bill explains. She had no nonprofit experience, yet she was able to find the balance between her expertise and what she didn’t know, making her an incredible ally in the work.

Bill Ellis 2“She was smarter than everyone else in the room but didn’t act that way,” Bill remembers. “She really opened my eyes. That was the model for me. I saw how effective somebody can be bringing in an outside set of skills.”

In 2006, the year after SVP and Cleveland High School completed their five year capacity building relationship, Bill became a partner. And when the lead partner role for Zeno (then known as Explorations in Math) became available, it was a natural progression.

“[Laura’s] why I got involved, and why I felt that the lead partner role was so important to both sides,” Bill says.

Becoming an Advocate

Zeno was founded in 2003 by a group of parents whose kids were students at Laura Ingalls Wilder Elementary. They were concerned about the negative math culture they saw influencing students and adults alike and decided to do something about it. Today Zeno partners with schools and organizations in the region to host family math events, equip parents and service providers with tools and resources to get their children exposed to math early, and build out in-class and after school programming to include more math-positive experiences for students.

When it comes down to it, Zeno believes that every child deserves to be great at math. But not all kids have access to the same opportunities that instill math confidence and competence early in life.

Going in as their new lead partner, Bill quickly recognized that his role meant being a dual advocate for both SVP and Zeno.

“I was very much a bridge,” Bill says. “When it came time for a resubmission or annual review, I was on the SVP side working with Zeno to get everything ready and preparing for meetings. Other times, I would essentially be on the Zeno side going to SVP for resources or volunteers.”

But to be a successful advocate, Bill explains, the lead partner has to do more than sign the dotted line and stroll in twice a year for investee reviews. The strength of the partnership depends on building a trusting and open relationship. It requires modeling Laura’s approach, so that investee leadership feel comfortable being open about their needs and asking for SVP support.

“For me it was just spending time,” Bill remembers. “Not always in a formal setting. It was getting together for coffee and just chatting about how things are going. It was a case where we built that trust to be able to be comfortable in working together.”

Over the five year relationship, Bill helped bring in and manage SVP Partner volunteers for 40 different projects with Zeno. Partners Megan Smiley and Sarah Daniels helped launch a branding campaign. Sarah Daniels also supported Zeno in building a PR plan. In human resources, Carmen D’Arcangelo helped Zeno establish a professional development plan and performance review process. Partner Kevin Phaup provided support on SharePoint and the organization’s IT systems. Bill also worked with Zeno and their board to match them with SVP consulting funds that would allow the organization to align their programmatic work with a theory of change and logic model.

This experience with Zeno, along with Bill’s initial exposure to SVP at Cleveland High School, launched a turning point in his philanthropy. He took on volunteer projects with other SVP Investees in addition to being a lead partner. And over time, he fostered connections between Zeno and investees he met through his volunteer work, encouraging collaboration and peer learning.

Where Are They Now

Bill was asked to join the Zeno board at the end of the grant term with SVP. He didn’t think twice before he agreed. This year is his third year as board chair for the organization. It also marks seven years of involvement with Zeno.

“Essentially I just fell in love with the organization and its mission,” Bill says matter-of-factly.

“We have a MathFest twice a year, once in Rainier Valley and once in Kent, where hundreds of families come and play math games,” Bill explains. “To see these little kids’ faces light up as they see what they can accomplish, see what they can do, and see how much fun math can be, that’s been a big reward for me.”

Zeno Math

In the years since Bill first started working with Zeno, the organization has grown and evolved and expanded. When SVP brought them on as an investee the organization was serving about 20 schools, providing math curriculum, support and training.

By 2012, the last year of their SVP grant, they nearly doubled their school partnerships as well as expanded to Chicago. Then in 2015 they joined the Road Map Project and shifted their organizational goals to more effectively close the opportunity gap for marginalized communities. Zeno has since implemented two big changes: 1) an emphasis on math in early learning environments, and 2) only serve communities in need.

“It’s been tremendously rewarding for all of us on the board,” Bill explains. “To still have the same general mission of let’s get kids ready for math and reduce the intimidation factor, but let’s also get progress well before they get into elementary school.”

With initiatives like MathWays for Early Learning, Zeno works exclusively with early learning and elementary communities with the greatest need as indicated by: 70 percent or more of the students served receive a free and reduced lunch rate; fall below the state average on 4th grade math assessments; or are below the state average on Washington Kindergarten Inventory of Developing Skills (WaKIDS). The program provides tools and training to encourage early math exploration, including math game kits specifically designed for families.

“The idea is to get kids exposed to math at a very early age,” Bill continues. “We work with early learning centers. We work with home visitation programs. It’s just taken off.”

For Bill, the lead partner role was the golden latchkey that shifted the tables for his philanthropic and community work. Through Laura Yedwab, he caught a glimpse of the essence of SVP’s capacity building work. At Zeno, he gathered the on-the-job experience he needed to be a successful engaged philanthropist.

“I’m an unabashed fan of SVP,” Bill says. “I just think it’s a great organization and it’s made so many contributions to this community. SVP was really helpful to me in becoming better at philanthropy.”

“Instead of just scattering this here and there why not do something that’s going to be meaningful?”


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