High Touch, Lasting Impact


Social Venture Partners hit their stride by developing human capital.
By John Syme

When Will Miller ’78 established the Charlotte chapter of Social Venture Partners in 2005, he had a feeling his fellow Davidsonians would be strong supporters. The hands-on, venture philanthropy ethos of SV P, founded in Seattle in 1997, fits hand in glove with the college’s purpose of “developing humane instincts and disciplined and creative minds for lives of leadership and service.”

SVP Charlotte sums up its mission in two parts: “a) investing time, professional expertise, and financial resources in support of social initiatives or nonprofits with high potential for lasting, measurable impact and b) providing a rich educational experience for our donor partners in order that they will become engaged, strategic, and effective philanthropists.”

“People now view philanthropy with their other investments,” Miller says. “I would argue that checkbook philanthropy is a thing of the past, and should be. The only way we’re going to solve problems is by developing our human capital differently.”

Some 17 alumni help fill out the ranks of SVP Partners, who number 86 and counting.

Davidson alumni, staff, and students also participated across the board in SVP’s inaugural SEED 20 competition in uptown Charlotte in March. SEED stands for “Social Entrepreneurs Empowered.” The “20” represents each year’s class—20 social entrepreneurs culled from the applicant pool (82 in this first year)—who benefit from the competition “designed to discover, spotlight, and fund the region’s greatest ideas for building social value.”

Davidsonians seeded SEED 20 throughout. Cas Peters ’12 brought some applied number-crunching from his political science major to bear in helping to ensure fairness and precision in winnowing the field.

Kathie Turner, director of oral communication and professor of communication studies at Davidson, presented a workshop with Davidson student coaches.

SEED 20 coaching co-chairs Harrison Marshall ’79 and Debbie Dillon Darden ’78 facilitated contestants’ quests to hone their three-minute “elevator speeches” to a fine point.

At the big event, dubbed “SEED 20 Unleashed!,” American Idol polish and pizzazz met corporate boardroom power and money.

Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx ’93 welcomed a cross section of Who’s Who and who cares—really cares. Steve Sellers ’79 served as lead SV P partner for the competition, Phelps Sprinkle ’93 led on branding and marketing, and Davidson President Emeritus Bobby Vagt ’69 provided the event’s keynote address.

The finalists included the Charlotte Teachers Institute, a partnership between Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, UNC Charlotte, and Davidson; and Circle de Luz, founded by Rosie Molinary ’96 to help empower young Latinas. Mary Kathryn Ross Elkins ’01, presenter for Circle de Luz, is also an SVP Partner.

One contestant, Sow Much Good, worked with Davidson students on campus to produce videos promoting fresh food in urban food deserts. Another contestant, Inspire the Fire, has since gone on to competition in Las Vegas in America’s Got Talent.

Big winners were Grub to Grub, presented by a second-grade teacher whose project will grow grubs from food garbage to produce high-protein chicken and fish food ($15,000 Wells Fargo Grand Prize, $5,000 Coaches Award); and Friendship Gardens, which grows food for a Friendship Trays program ($7,500 Grand Prize Runner Up, $2,500 People’s Choice).

In an announcement following the planned prizes, each of the 10 contestants learned they were also being awarded $1,000 apiece by Wells Fargo. Then, another announcement followed that an anonymous donor had been moved to make gifts on the spot in the same amount!

“I think venture philanthropy and Social Venture Partners are about to hit a stride, based on the success of SEED 20,” said Miller.

Image Credit: ©istockphoto.com/MJH


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