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So today I was talking to a colleague about VPF’s upcoming Launch Party (Feb. ’08). We were admitting to one another that it often takes at least two attempts to clearly articulate what VPF does. Two attempts being on the low end. And everybody knows that this doesn’t make the ideal elevator speech.

What is the connection between social entrepreneurism and philanthropy?

Social entrepreneurs (SE) – in short definition – are visionary individuals with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems. Ambitious and persistent, they tackle major social issues by changing systems, spreading solutions, and persuading entire societies to take new leaps to enact sustainable social change.

The genius of SE’s, as originally identified by Ashoka, is their identification of an existing “gap” in a given community and turning it into an opportunity to change the entire system. They don’t just plug the hole, they knock down the entire wall and rebuild it so no hole exists at all – plugged or otherwise.

But after taking a look around this growing sector, I also realized that SE’s of the non-profit variety often lack one or more of the following resources:

1) Money : start-up money, general operations money and, maybe most importantly, longer term money

2) Skills : administrative and operational, legal, financial, managerial, public relations, sales and marketing, human resources, and the list goes on…

3) Networks : cross industry, cross cultural, multi-geographical

Philanthropically, it serves a community well to offer their support to these unique individuals. One option is to give to a charity that plugs a hole into infinitum, the other is to provide philanthropic charity to a struggling SE and change the system altogether.


Donors are increasingly skeptical of how their carefully placed contributions are used. It seems that across the board donors are fed up with the scandals, the misplaced money, or the unwillingness to disclose exact money allocation among some nonprofits.

A recent article, “Where does your money really go?“, takes a broad view of this issue.

Worth the reading if you ever wondered how your money is spent by nonprofits. There’s even a brief mention of new philanthropy – though I think the author could have developed this further or giving a bigger nod to the upsurge in alternatives coming available to the average giver (like giving circles, for instance).

As always with these types of things, I admit that not all nonprofits act irresponsibly or squander generous donors’ money — but one just can’t be too careful these days.

As the first blog entry for NYC Venture Philanthropy Fund (VPF), I think it appropriate to talk about how we started and why. The ‘how’ and ‘why’ tend to be the most commonly asked questions so it seems a logical place to begin…

It all started as an article about giving circles in an airline magazine. Four months later, it was a meeting in my living room with 10 strangers. Today, it is a burgeoning organization in New York City dedicated to supporting local social entrepreneurs whose good ideas intelligently address persistent issues in our communities.

After that first meeting, I realized what VPF could really be. New York City is brimming with highly qualified, motivated and generous individuals interested and willing to commit precious time and energy to good ideas.

So with the idea of VPF in hand, we’ve managed to develop a Guidance Board and Advisory Council (in the works) to keep us on track. The Membership and Finance Committees have done their part to firm the foundation. We have a website, a partnership as a donor advised fund with the New York Community Trust and we’re on our way.

As for the ‘why’, it was best voiced at that first meeting: people need a place to do giving differently.

Why give differently? What is the impetus for changing the way so many of us give now?

Well, why do we give? Generally, we give because we envision a different reality and we want to support those who are driving the change we wish to see in our world.

VPF questions whether giving in the traditional style actually produces the desired outcome.

Scenario 1: You receive a letter in the mail or email in your box telling you of all the good work Organization X has done in the past year. They outline the horrors of what still exists despite their efforts. And now they are relying on you and your donation to ensure that they continue the good work they do to battle those problems. You write a check, send it off and feel much better for having done it.

You don’t know where your money goes, how it will be used, or the individual who might benefit from your generosity.

Scenario 2: You join VPF and make a personal annual contribution of $365 ($1 a day) to become a voting member. At the beginning of the year you, along with the entire VPF membership, vote on what topic you would like to support: environment, women, kids, education, health, etc.

Topical focus decided, you join the Grants Committee to begin seeking out local social entrepreneurs within the New York City neighborhoods that are addressing the chosen topic. You have a personal hand in deciding which organization or individual makes it to the short list.

In the fall, you again have the opportunity to vote on your favorite social entrepreneur on the short list and decide where your contribution goes. Being an organization based on democratic ideals, majority wins.

In the coming year, your money is distributed to the organization and VPF begins to deploy members that are interested in volunteering their hard won skills to the organization. Having never actually volunteered anywhere beyond writing a letter or answering a phone, you decide to volunteer your skills. Now, not only did you have the chance to find and select the place your money went, you also have a direct hand in shaping and strengthening a powerful effort to affect positive change in your local community.

Now, that’s giving.





December 2007
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