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Originally published August 14, 2011 at 9:00 PM | Page modified August 15, 2011 at 6:53 AM

Jerry Large

Nonprofit SVP meets measure of success

Social Venture Partners has helped make philanthropy about more than writing a check. Donors become partners who volunteer with nonprofits in whatever capacity their time and skills allow.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Social Venture Partners has helped make philanthropy about more than writing a check.

Checks are great, but sometimes the people who write them have skills to offer that are just as helpful, and sometimes more powerful. Developing and tapping those skills is a major part of SVP's practice.

That's one reason Paul Shoemaker, SVP Seattle executive connector, made the latest power and influence top 50 list of The NonProfit Times, a national publication of news about nonprofits.

"It's probably the only time I'll be on a list with Bill Gates," he told me when we spoke by phone about SVP.

Four King County philanthropists made the list. Besides Shoemaker and Gates, the list includes Luz A. Vega-Marquis, president and CEO of the Marguerite Casey Foundation, and Richard Stearns, CEO of World Vision U.S.A.

They were chosen, the newspaper said, for "tackling our world's most entrenched problems in increasingly creative ways."

Desktop-publishing pioneer Paul Brainerd started SVP in 1997 to improve nonprofits, nurture more effective and engaged philanthropists, and to build better communities.

It works a bit like venture capital in the business world. Donors become partners who, in addition to giving money, volunteer with nonprofits in whatever capacity their time and skills allow, but especially as consultants who help with everything from devising strategic business plans to improving computer databases. A committee of partners studies grant applications from nonprofits looking for ones at the right stage and with the right leadership to increase their impact and efficiency.

Shoemaker joined as a partner while he was a high-level manager at Microsoft, then was persuaded to become SVP's first director in 1998.

"It was hard to describe to my parents and friends that I was about to leave Microsoft and join a nonprofit no one had heard of," Shoemaker said

But he said, he saw SVP "as an opportunity to combine the heart part of me with the head part of me, and to combine them in a purposeful way."

Shoemaker was surprised by "how exceedingly hard it is to feel like you are getting traction." The issues social-service nonprofits address are stubbornly persistent and complex.

In business, he said, all you need is one number to tell whether you are succeeding or not. What's your net profit? But changing lives and building a better community is not so simple.

SVP schools the people who become partners on social issues, because an MBA doesn't prepare someone for that.

The reasons why a child will thrive or not are many and all intertwined: poverty, degree of access to quality education and health care, how capable parents are, neighborhood stability and more.

Better communities take time, but the short-term results of SVP's work are visible already. Shoemaker mentioned Bellevue-based Kindering Center, which with SVP help over six years doubled the number of children it helps.

The current roster of 17 nonprofits includes Thrive by Five Washington, the Washington Environmental Council, and Powerful Schools, and there are 450 local partners.

There are many similar success stories and the attention they've attracted is spreading around the country and to other nations. There's now an international network of SVP programs focused on the foundations of sound communities: early childhood education, K-12 education, life outside of school time, and a healthy environment.

A gathering of all 50 people on the list is scheduled for next month in D.C., where they can mingle and maybe generate more great ideas.

They've earned recognition for their focus on a different kind of bottom line and a higher cause that ultimately benefits us all.

Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.

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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
jlarge@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3346

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