Over the years, venture philanthropy has introduced creative methods and breakthrough ideas to the world of philanthropy. Still for many, it has fallen short of its promise and has discouraged those who had hoped for quicker route to a more efficient and impactful philanthropy.

I would suggest another perspective. Venture philanthropy has shown resilience in the face of evolving challenges and a capacity to rise to demands of complex and intractable problems during difficult times. Examples include the 1 Million Livelihoods initiative by Social Venture Partners (SVP) India, the Equitable Access to Quality Education efforts by SVP in Portland, Ore., and SVP Connecticut’s focus on Closing the Opportunity Gap.

Far from falling short, we are awakening to our true potential and demonstrating the courage to face the greatest obstacles ahead.

Yesterday: Venture Philanthropy’s Unfulfilled Promise

In the beginning, it was a nifty idea. People could pool their money, experience, and connections and “invest” in the capacity of mission-driven community-based organizations (CBOs). This was leverage, a win-win-win. CBOs benefitted from free support and funding help; venture partners benefitted from the opportunity to give back in ways that were both stimulating and rewarding; and the community benefitted from the prospect that these organizations would scale and replicate and go on to solve “society’s most intractable problems.”  What better example of bringing forward the wisdom of working smarter not harder?

The whole enterprise was exhilarating. For the last 20-plus years, Social Venture Partners (of which I am a partner) has alone grown to a global movement of more than 3,500 people attracted to the simplicity, power, and optimism of this model.

There was only one problem: Things didn’t go as planned. Yes, pooled resources helped CBOs grow more efficient, and interesting work has attracted many otherwise uninvolved people into philanthropy. But scale? Replication? Solving society’s toughest problems? Not so much. As one astute partner observed: “We only became great at … turning tiny nonprofits into small ones.”

Venture Philanthropy Adapts to “Nothing About Us Without Us”

Faced with this disappointment, venture philanthropy, to its credit, is adjusting. It has recognized increasingly that effective work requires longer term focus on complex and systemic issues; and that strong, trusting relationships and collaboration carry more weight than business efficiencies.

Because problems are social and political as well as technocratic, our work needs to involve more people, more perspectives and more opinions in a collective enterprise. This represents a significant departure from the more self-sufficient traditional approach.

Still, if this new turn has challenged the traditional philosophy and practice of venture philanthropy, it is just the beginning. The real challenge and true test lie ahead.

Today: Tackling Equitable and Just Outcomes

Dr. Gail C. Christopher, former senior advisor and vice president of the W. K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) where she architected the WKKF-led Truth Racial Healing and Transformation effort for America, relayed this brutally frank message at the SVP 2018 summit:

The persistent problems in society aren’t due to a lack of programs and supporting resources. The problem isn’t even that the inequitable status is willfully perpetuated in law and policy and buttressed in our social norms and routine behaviors.

The problem is the unfounded, historically pernicious and deeply ingrained belief that some races and ethnicities (and to a lesser degree, economic classes) are superior to others. This deeply ingrained notion operates in ways we are unaware of and often unwilling to even consider. It’s the root of the issue and the cornerstone of a system that routinely undermines the equal opportunity to pursue a good life. It is an inward toxicity of which social issues and problems are only outward reflections. And it is tough to face.

How will venture philanthropy respond to this lofty challenge?

I predict that the same creativity, wisdom and adaptability that has taken us this far will give us the strength to examine our lives and our attitudes. The greatest leverage of all will be to attack social issues at their root by having the humility to accept help in healing our own minds, raising our own awareness, publicly committing ourselves to the cause of equity and social justice and walking the talk with community partners who share the same vision.

As we go forward investing ourselves in portfolios of organizations and initiatives that promote change for good, perhaps our most important questions won’t be “Will this portfolio scale?” but rather, “Will this portfolio heal?”