Pitch Perfect

Social Venture Partners Arizona applies a strategic approach to nonprofit success

the Labor's Community Service Agency team
Stephen Sparks (center) is joined by LCSA staff and clients in celebrating their win at this year’s Social Venture Partners Arizona Fast Pitch event.

A buzz of nervous energy and excitement hung in the air backstage at the Social Venture Partners (SVP) Fast Pitch event, held March 27 in Scottsdale. Seven presenters paced the floor, silently running through the carefully crafted pitches they were about to present to an audience of 600, all waiting to hear how they’re going to change the world.

With $57,000 in total grant money at stake, the competition was real. But for development manager Stephen Sparks of Labor’s Community Service Agency (LCSA) it was also about camaraderie between the competitors.

“All of the innovators were very supportive of each other,” he says. “There was a lot of positive energy, and it was like having your own cheering section.”

At the end of the evening, after all the pitches had been made and the panel of judges painstakingly deliberated, LCSA took home the $25,000 Innovator Award for its pitch on SHIFT, an affordable car purchasing program they offer, in addition to affordable and transitional housing, financial empowerment, and workforce development.

“One of the biggest barriers facing working poor families is transportation,” says Sparks. “Financial coaching and responsible car ownership work together to get people to higher economic stability, with better job opportunities and wages, and without the struggles of high-interest car loans.”

Since it started about 15 years ago, SHIFT has helped about 300 families who have participated in LCSA and other nonprofits doing similar work. Sparks credits the Fast Pitch program with redefining what the program can accomplish.

“Above all, I thank my mentors for being business experts who asked the right questions, and helped us work through a clear strategic vision and while honing the three-minute pitch,” he says. “The opportunity with SVP is to make the program fully self-sustaining and replicable in other communities, while building our internal capacity to 100 cars a year and beyond.”

To celebrate innovation in the nonprofit startup community, each year, SVP Fast Pitch Arizona takes 20 nonprofit leaders (selected by committee from about 60 applicants) through an eight-week “messaging boot camp.” Each is assigned two mentors to focus on key aspects of nonprofit success: What’s the big problem you’re trying to solve? What makes you unique? Who else is in your space? Who do you collaborate with?

From the initial 20 organizations, seven are selected to further hone their pitches and make a three-minute presentation for grant dollars at the annual Fast Pitch event.

“We’re a philanthropic organization, but we do more than give money away,” says Terri Wogan, executive director and partner with SVP. “Our first goal is to build better, smarter and more effective philanthropists. The second is to build stronger nonprofits in Phoenix as a way of solving some of our social challenges and ensuring that kids receive an excellent education.”

To accomplish that, SVP applies a venture capital business model to philanthropic pursuits.

“Nonprofit leaders are very passionate about their causes and what they’re trying to do,” Wogan says. “Some work so hard that the business side of the organization gets lost a little bit.”

That’s where SVP’s partners come in. About 120 Phoenix business professionals and community leaders bring expertise and guidance to help nonprofits do a better job of structuring their organizations, from board governance and financials, to fundraising strategies.

In addition to local talent, SVP also has the backing of a worldwide network. The first SVP was launched in Seattle in 1998 by a large number of Microsoft employees who wanted to take a different approach to philanthropy. Local philanthropist Jerry Hirsch of the Lodestar Foundation thought it would also be a good fit in Phoenix, and launched the first SVP in 1999 with about 33 partners. Today, the international network includes 40 affiliates and about 3,500 partners.

SVP is also acutely aware of sustainability in another aspect of philanthropy: getting more people, particularly young adults, involved in the nonprofit domain. The Next Gen Partner Program, for example, works with teens to help them become more strategic givers and volunteers.

This year’s Fast Pitch training program has been expanded to include three Arizona State University students and three for-profit companies that have a social mission. And SVP’s Recruit 20 Campaign is an outreach to get 20 more partners in Phoenix in the coming year to increase the organization’s intellectual capital and impact.

“In addition to being an opportunity for our partners to give back, what’s also exciting is that SVP is like a learning lab for philanthropists,” Wogan says. “In the process of vetting so many nonprofits, everyone gets to learn from nonprofits and from each other, and how investments can help solve social challenges.”

Story by Jake Poinier
Photography by Mark Lipczynski

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