Social Venture Partners (SVP) is a global network of donors with 40-plus affiliates. Along with giving unrestricted grant funding, SVP’s donors support local nonprofits through collaborative partnerships to build these organizations’ capacity.

SVP International recently launched Reimagine Giving, an initiative to mobilize those with economic power who have benefited from our current systems to work alongside, learn with, amplify, and fund frontline efforts that are transforming communities around the globe.

This Q&A is part of the Reimagine Giving series.

Even before last summer’s racial justice reckoning, SVP Cleveland and its Partners (donors) recognized that it was time to reimagine its approach to collective giving. Since 2017, the organization has undergone a transformational shift to center equity and justice. In a city where 49% of the population is Black, how can SVP Cleveland -- and its predominantly white group of donors -- effectively tackle its community’s challenges? 

“We’ve learned that we don't have all the answers,” said Abby Westbrook, executive director of SVP Cleveland. “We're increasingly focused on collaborative engagements and an experience of mutual learning.”

Giving Compass recently spoke with Westbrook and Emily Troia, manager of Partner engagement and communications at SVP Cleveland, about the organization’s evolution, challenges, and where it goes from here. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Tell me how SVP Cleveland is centering equity.

Abby Westbrook, Executive Director of SVP Cleveland

Westbrook: Since 2017, the Partners, board, and staff have been re-envisioning who we are, how we engage and where we want to go — all through the lens of equity. This journey has involved hundreds of discussions, thousands of Partner hours, and a deep, ongoing commitment to grow in our understanding of equity, power, privilege, and justice. When our journey began, our Partners’ understanding varied widely as did the extent to which they embraced equity. Therefore, we provided many opportunities for education and discussion as a full Partnership and in small groups. In 2020, we launched Investment Reimagined, a process through which we updated our investment cycle and developed new opportunities for us to engage with small and start-up nonprofits — especially those with Black and Brown leadership and serving marginalized communities.

We streamlined our application process and tried to make it more interactive. With these changes, this year’s application was less cumbersome, more relational (what would it be like to work together) and less transactional. Each semi-finalist received a $1,000 mini-grant to compensate them for their time and participation. 

We are proud of these changes to the application process but also recognize there is so much more work to do! Even with these updates the question remains, “How do we engage with nonprofits in a way that is increasingly mindful, centers equity, and shifts the power dynamics?”  

Q: What kinds of conversations are you having about supporting more BIPOC-led organizations?

Emily Troia, Manager of Partner Engagement and Communications at SVP Cleveland

Troia: There has been active discussion among Partners over the past few years about the desire to work with more nonprofits led by people of color serving traditionally marginalized communities. As part of Investment Reimagined, we created a second track to work with small and startup nonprofits that didn't fit the traditional investment cycle. We weren’t sure of the level of interest in the community but received 13 applications in under a month, the majority of which were BIPOC-led organizations. Our Partners understand that, as we expand to work with small and start-up organizations, we have to do the internal work to be able to authentically and humbly engage in a way that serves their unique needs and builds a relationship between us. The real work is how we build these relationships from an open and honest place. That is the work that never ends, but we are committed to it.

Q: What is motivating your Partners to rethink how they're doing this work?

Troia: Many different types of activities, thought processes, educational sessions, and events in the world all coming together have had an impact that is truly shifting our culture. We're not where we want to be, but we have momentum to shift to an understanding about coming to this work with greater humility and understanding of our power and privilege. The mindset shifts that our Partners are experiencing are such signifiers of the growth we're experiencing as individuals and as an organization. 

Q:  Where do you see progress and stumbling blocks for your partners?

Westbrook: We certainly have some Partners who feel conflicted about the direction we're going, but the majority of them are really excited about where we’re headed. I believe too though that we have the potential to attract a lot more Partners with a model that is clearly defined around equity and inclusion and creates an authentic community of learning, growth, and change.  

Troia: One of the things that has excited me so much is watching Partners  support each other as they make progress and overcome resistance. One example: During an equity exercise, one of our Partners asked, "Why can't it just be called equality? Why does it have to be equity?" Another Partner responded, "It has to be equity, because sometimes language needs to change in order for real change to happen."

Q: How has the collective giving approach led to change in your community?

 Westbrook: Change is continuous action, not a static shift. SVP works for ongoing change on many levels. We broaden individuals’ perspectives on who is a philanthropist and what being a philanthropist means. We support our Partners as they learn and grow as philanthropists. We work closely with local nonprofits to bolster their organizational capacity to support their mission and work. Ultimately our hope too is to be an example for the larger foundations in Cleveland and influence the broader philanthropic community to work toward systemic change. 

Q: So, how are your partners responding to the idea of sharing power and wealth?

Troia: We have been convening small cohorts of white donors who meet over six sessions to reflect on white privilege, accumulated advantage, and how to make SVP a better antiracist organization. We discuss individual, interpersonal, institutional, and systemic racism in a very personal way. I've seen Partners really go deep and be very authentic. I’ve seen many “ah-ha” moments including individuals grappling with the fact that, for all they've accomplished, their successes were not just because they worked hard but also because of the advantages they had. The sessions culminate with a conversation on how we move forward to make SVP Cleveland a more multicultural, anti-racist organization. 

The fact that our donors are willing to engage in these conversations in a group with people they might not know shows an exciting level of commitment to personal growth and change. People talk about how exhausting it is, but also how energizing it is. The biggest questions that come out of the sessions are, "What do I do now that I know this? How do I use this privilege for good and shift power to be more equitable?"  

Q: What advice do you have for donors or other SVP partners who are interested in centering equity and sharing power and wealth?

Westbrook: It's really about understanding all the dynamics around giving -- which include, power, privilege, race, gender, intention v. impact, the list goes on. We all bring our own unique experience to what we do as well as all our blindspots. You can have the best intention in wanting to center equity and social justice, but you can unintentionally do a lot of harm. You can also feel off the hook because your intention was good. It’s difficult to shift the decision making and not hoard all of the power. It's where we see the most tension and the most opportunity. When I've seen it happen, it's liberating and you see better outcomes for everyone. 

Troia: We need to focus on belonging. When people say they want to include more people of color, sometimes it's through a DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion) lens instead of authentically creating a space where people feel like they belong.