It’s understandable to come out of 20 years of funding cycles with a new perspective on grantmaking. For one Portland-based organization, these shifts in perspective have driven consistent and drastic change — and shown, time and again, how the power of the collective can transform a community.
Lauren Johnson is Executive Director of SVP Portland, one of 43 affiliates under the global Social Venture Partners network. Founded in 2001, SVP Portland just celebrated its 20th anniversary with another examination of its funding practices.
“We are a partnership of over 130 professionals who collectively invest not only our dollars, but our time, our expertise, our networks, and our influence,” says Johnson.
As an affiliate of Social Venture Partners International, SVP Portland practices “venture philanthropy,” a model that looks a lot like capital investment but focused on grassroots leadership rather than capital-focused organizations. Just like the giving circle model, the goal of venture philanthropy is to create social impact (rather than capital growth) by investing in nonprofit organizations and community causes.
When SVP Portland first opened operations 20 years ago, it funded a wide range of organizations and issues-based work in the family and children sphere. After 10 years of this wide-ranged approach to investing, SVP Portland realized it needed to reexamine this commitment. Despite its best efforts, Portland’s educational facilities, graduation rates, and health and economic issues for school-age children continued to decline.
“We felt like we were failing one success at a time,” says Johnson. “We asked, are we okay with that? Individual organizations are growing, scaling up, and having greater impact, but outcomes overall were getting worse, and this was a real problem in our community.”
In 2012, SVP Portland decided to commit 10 years to investing in early education. Since then, SVP Portland’s goal has been “ensuring equitable access to high-quality and culturally relevant learning experiences” for children in Portland — namely, establishing universal, equitable preschool access for kids in counties facing barriers to educational resources.
Part of this reexamination also involved an analysis of SVP Portland’s funding methods. At first, the organization invested mainly in nonprofit organizations and education programs themselves, but Johnson and her team quickly realized that, without fixing the overall education system, this method of allocating funds wouldn’t have anywhere near the impact they wanted.
“It was sort of like having a healthy whale swimming in a toxic ocean,” Johnson explained. “We needed to think about the environment that these nonprofits were operating within.”
Enter a perspective shift that has come to define SVP Portland from the inside out. The organization began investing in collaboratives and systems change efforts while viewing their partnership opportunities as “transformational, rather than transactional.” This new outlook also involved a change in terminology — circle members became “Investor Partners” and grantees became “Community Partners,” as both bring unique strengths and assets. These terms offer a clearer and much more collaborative description for SVP Portland’s methods.
“This investment isn’t one-way,” Johnson says. “The transformation is very much mutual. We shifted that language because we’re truly about partnership — and we are nothing without the work of community-based organizations and community-driven initiatives.”
SVP Portland also took a step that many funding organizations typically shy away from: They stepped into the political arena, investing in advocacy work and ballot-backing to raise awareness and funds for a call for universal early education. Preschool for All, a campaign dedicated to children in Multnomah County, Ore., represents a unique opportunity for a circle structure to throw its proverbial hat in the political ring — in this case, by fundraising for and investing in critical research projects, issue awareness, and ballot support that would ultimately form the backbone of the campaign’s forward progress.
“This was pretty controversial!” says Johnson. “There was a worry that SVP shouldn’t play a political or advocacy role; that we were only meant to be a neutral convener. But we believed we’d made a commitment to our community, and we knew that Preschool for All absolutely needed public funding and financing. Part of our role was being bold and taking the risk.”
The ballot measure eventually passed, ensuring state funding to secure universal preschool for all children in the county.
“This was not just a win for SVP — it was a win for families and a true community accomplishment,” Johnson says.
2020 was a unique year for SVP Portland, and not just because of the Preschool for All victory. Stepping into the advocacy arena led to a loss of some members, but Johnson found -- even before the pandemic -- that doing systems change work resonated with a broader group of philanthropists seeking leverage and sustained change for historically marginalized communities. Building on the exponential growth they experienced in previous systems change campaigns, Johnson and the SVP Portland team explored even more avenues for engagement, particularly as the pandemic presented new challenges and opportunities to overcome.
“It’s not just a commitment — it’s actually doing the work,” she says. “There are some people who aren’t on board with that, but we’ve gained more people than we’ve lost because people recognize that this is part of who we are.” So in Johnson’s eyes — as well as in the eyes of SVP Portland Partners stepping up to fill these gaps — the fight for equity is more important than ever before. “Otherwise, we’re complicit in the disparities we currently see. It’s a process.”
When the pandemic struck, many of SVP Portland’s Community Partners found themselves at a loss for what to do — banks were overwhelmed and unhelpful, and avenues to federal funding dried up before many organizations could apply for assistance. But by leveraging member investors’ networks, relationships, and existing connections, SVP Portland was able to help secure $3.4 million in PPP and federal pandemic relief funding for their Community Partners.
“That wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t have such trusting and authentic relationships with our partner organizations,” she said. “They trusted us enough that they could call and say, ‘We don’t know how to navigate this.’ We happened to have those connections, so we were able to help them through the application process and make an impact.”
As SVP Portland moves forward in its fight for universal preschool, support for children and families from marginalized Portland communities, and its commitment to being an anti-racist organization, Johnson welcomes any and all who believe in the SVP Portland mission to make their voices heard.
And as to the future?
Johnson knows it’s a bumpy road, but that road is trending upward.
“Sometimes it’s two steps forward and one step back,” she says. “It’s not linear, but we’re committed to progress each and every day. Our future is saying, ‘What’s our next big, hairy, audacious goal?’ There’s so much growing momentum, and I’m excited to lead us through that process.”
To learn more about SVP Portland, membership opportunities, and current initiatives, visit its website. Johnson also encourages anyone interested to get in touch with her directly or with Matt Little, director of investor partnerships.
Philanthropy Together aims to strengthen and scale the giving circle movement by working with giving circles, venture philanthropists, and impact investing organizations like SVP Portland. Learn more at philanthropytogether.org.