Social investment

For some young professionals, simply writing a check to a nonprofit and hoping for the best is not enough.

Instead, many of today’s philanthropists value the opportunity to be involved and make sure their contributions add to the success of the organizations they support, says David Wittkowsky, executive director of Cleveland Social Venture Partners (SVP).

Cleveland SVP is set up as a venture fund created to help area nonprofits. The Cleveland chapter includes 35 individuals who contribute $10,000 each over two years. Pooled contributions are then “invested” in an organization, and the SVP partners offer their professional skills to that organization as well.

“This is about building a strong working relationship between our partners and staff members of the nonprofit we support,” Wittkowsky says. “In fact, we look at the first six months as relationship-building. Only with that sort of basis can we do good work together.”

Last year, SVP gave $50,000 to Youth Opportunities Unlimited (Y.O.U.) and assisted the organization with a human resources strategy.

With philanthropic resources declining and needs increasing, nonprofit organizations and those who give to them are searching for new ways to make the most of the resources that are available.

Smart Business spoke with Wittkowsky about why SVP’s approach to community service is popular with a new type of philanthropist.

You refer to the partners at SVP as social investors. What does that mean?

Social investors are concerned with more than the financial return on their investment. They’re interested in the social impact their investments are having and what additional returns are to be had beyond the financial.

Our partners aren’t looking for a financial return. Their contributions are invested in nonprofits, but we don’t expect any money back. We call it an investment but it’s like a grant. What we get back are stronger nonprofits doing even better work in our community. We’re interested in helping build more sustainable nonprofit organizations through our partnerships with them.

More than two-thirds of the partners contribute their time and expertise to the nonprofits Cleveland SVP supports, although it’s not required. What does that says about the future of philanthropy in Cleveland?

There are lots of Cleveland professionals responding to us, and that’s very encouraging. That’s not to say there’s not a place for more traditional contributions. There’s the work of the United Way, the Cleveland Foundation and private foundations. They are all essential to support the broad array of Cuyahoga County nonprofits, but we bring a new element to that.

Ours is not an opportunity we go out and sell to people. It’s something that other people buy. The difference is that we can’t twist anybody’s arm to join us. They have to recognize the value and respond to it personally; it has to mean something to them. If it works for them and if they’re interested, we welcome them.

Has interest in your group increased since it was founded in 2001?

Last year, we doubled our partnership. We continue to build the partnership so we can develop a sustainable organization ourselves. We are currently supported by grants from the Cleveland Foundation, George Gund Foundation and Fred A. Lennon Charitable Trust. Those organizations made start-up grants to us because they recognize the value in what we’re doing and want to see us make an impact in Cleveland. We’re grateful and indebted to them.

Ultimately, we want to have an organization big enough to be self-sustaining. If we had 125 partners, we could take a portion of each partner’s contribution for our very modest overhead expenses. But with only 25 partners, that’s not yet possible but we’re working toward it.

So it’s a grassroots-type organization?

It’s very hands-on and local. Our partners have a real interest in supporting our community and care about how our organization is attempting to do that. We don’t get in and mess with the nonprofit’s mission. We don’t try to redirect their work with their public.

We respect their experience in those areas; we bring business skills we think can compliment what they are already doing. How to reach: Cleveland Social Venture Partners, (216) 231-2300 or