Thirty-five Calgary business professionals came together this week to pioneer an innovative approach to charitable giving in Canada.
They call themselves Social Venture Partners Calgary (SVPC). Instead of just writing the big cheque, they roll up their sleeves and get involved. Like venture capitalists, they volunteer their time, business expertise and resources to help non-profit organizations achieve their goals.
“Call it venture philanthropy,” says SVPC co-founder Brad Zumwalt, a 34-year-old Calgary high-tech entrepreneur who launched the new charitable venture with his wife, Tanya.
“It’s a model of engagement. You get a whole lot more than money when you work with venture capitalists in the business world. That’s the model we’re replicating with SVP.”
The concept is new to Canada. It was developed in Seattle by Paul Brainerd, founding president of Aldus Corporation, a successful manufacturer of desktop publishing software.
In 1994, Brainerd sold Aldus to Adobe Systems, a giant U.S. provider of software for Web and print publishing, and then started turning his mind to things philanthropic. He founded Social Venture Partners Seattle in 1997, and the concept quickly spread to 10 other centres in the United States.
Zumwalt first got to know Brainerd in 1994, when he sold Image Club, a small Calgary provider of Web images and type fonts, to Aldus Corporation. Zumwalt subsequently became the founding president of EyeWire Inc., a Calgary dot-com firm that uses the Web to sell visual and audio content to graphic designers.
A year ago, he sold that company to Getty Images Inc., the world’s largest provider of visual content for professional use. After that, taking a leaf out of Brainerd’s book, Zumwalt began to think of giving something back to his community.
“The model they pioneered in Seattle is a very sound one,” he says. “It will appeal well to a city like Calgary where the volunteer spirit is so vibrant.”
The Calgary SVP partners range in age from 20 to 60 and come from all walks of business life, including professional service organizations, the technology sector and the energy industry. All the partners have committed to donating an annual minimum of $5,000, along with their time, experience and energy, to help support the chosen non-profit organizations.
They haven’t picked the organizations yet. At this week’s inaugural meeting, they brainstormed ideas and talked about aspects of Calgary life — such as health, education, and the environment — that might benefit from the new strategy for charitable giving.
“We think it’s important to pick a single focus for the first year or so, to develop some expertise in that area,” says Zumwalt. “Then we’ll start receiving grant applications from organizations that think this venture capital model would work for them.”
Developing expertise is a key component in the SVP program. The partners, while successful in their respective business fields, don’t pretend to know it all when it comes to charitable giving. Because of this, they have undertaken to become Philanthropy 101 students for a year, learning from experienced community leaders and experts in social issues.
Zumwalt says not every charity will benefit from the venture capital approach. Those with established boards, management structures and other operating systems already in place would likely want to rely on the methods that have worked for them in the past.
The beneficiaries of the SVP program will be emerging non-profit groups and established groups looking for innovative ways to develop more efficiency and growth.
“It’s very important for us to find a good fit,” he says. “We don’t want to offer our advice and our expertise if they’re not going to be willingly accepted. That’s not good for the people running the not-for-profit organizations, and it’s not good for our partners.”
To achieve the best marriage of SVP resources and non-profit beneficiaries, the partners plan to seek advice from, and work in tandem with, the city’s two most experienced institutional practitioners in the field of fund-raising and charitable giving — the United Way and the Calgary Foundation.
SVPC board member Jamie Leong-Huxley, a Calgary communications consultant, says the venture-capital concept interests her because it involves more than just giving money.
“Everybody else just wants the cheque, basically,” she says.
“Then there are volunteer opportunities, but they’re not really related. The fact that this brings those two things together in a new way of thinking is really appealing to me.”