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.

In spring 2020, as people shifted to work-from-home settings amid the pandemic, many others -- hospitality and restaurant workers, specifically -- faced another reality: Lost jobs and wages. For undocumented workers, the situation was even more dire because they weren’t eligible for unemployment benefits through the federal CARES Act.

In response, a group of SVP Denver Partners (donors) and an impact investing organization, Impact Charitable, created the Left Behind Workers Fund (LBWF) to support undocumented workers in their region. By the end of April 2020, more than $200,000 in direct cash grants was distributed.  And, over the course of the next year, the effort expanded exponentially with over $25 million raised to support 16,000 undocumented individuals in Denver.

“LBWF is a shining example of what can be accomplished when the stars align through assembling a powerhouse team, leveraging existing relationships, and ceding control to the community,” said Colleen Kazemi, executive director at SVP Denver.

Colleen Kazemi, Executive Director, SVP Denver

Building trust was a critical piece in working with the undocumented community, so SVP Denver Partners collaborated with cultural and relational brokers, including the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, the Village Exchange Center, El Centro Humanitario, among others. 

Giving Compass recently spoke with Kazemi about SVP Denver’s commitment to community, building a more diverse network, and goals for the future. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: You joined SVP Denver as Executive Director in May 2020. What was your vision and what progress have you made in a year?

I evaluated all the work we had done in the past and looked at the existing needs for social mission organizations in our community. We found that they needed help better defining their programming and ensuring they were positioned to deliver on those programs more efficiently because their population and the needs of their community were changing. 

The Theory of Change cohort is an eight-week program where nonprofits create a plan on how they will achieve impact with their organizational model. We also have Partners who are subject matter experts in a variety of fields and interested in supporting these nonprofits, learning more about their community, and can provide feedback to and coach the nonprofits. 

Going forward, I believe that SVP Denver can play a critical role in building a more collaborative ecosystem of nonprofits, social ventures, skilled volunteers and impact-driven funders that can make Denver a city where all residents, regardless of income, race or socio-economic status can fulfill their basic needs, access opportunities to improve the quality of their lives, and participate in an equitable, inclusive economy. 

Q: What are your Partners saying about the experience of interacting directly with the nonprofits?

Our experience with the LBWF is an excellent case study in this type of interaction. Sometimes - you don’t know what you don’t know. Humility is key. It was critical to not try to control the community partners but to have them lead authentically. Having the partners as cultural brokers was essential.

Truly, this effort would have gone nowhere without trust. The LBWF partnered with community-based organizations who were known and trusted in the community. They were the ones who identified and screened the applicants. 

Our Partners did an excellent job of building relationships and got input. They got the input and then we acted on it. The LBWF team listened, used input, provided tools that work - it was money given at scale the community hadn’t seen before. All of this was key to the enormous success of the LBWF.  

Overall, a lot of donors are trying to find ways to better understand the needs of our communities. It's really shifting from the inflexible practice of giving money based on certain success metrics. The reality is, especially with COVID, the needs of communities are changing and the best people to truly understand those needs are the people on the ground. We're trying to find ways to forge relationships and trust so there’s more shared understanding.

The cohorts have also helped Partners understand the root cause of issues. Over those eight weeks, you learn the reason why a program was developed. You learn the history behind why a community has been under-resourced or has food access issues. Having funders hear these things has made a huge difference in their ability to better understand these organizations’ needs.

Q: Are Partners having conversations about the role of systemic racism in our society’s systems?

In our Colorado Funders for Inclusivity & Equity group, we have a leader in DEI [Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) helping us better understand where those systems have developed and why they're having an effect on those communities we're serving. Some social ventures are naming systemic racism in their story and funders have been very open to receiving that information. 

Q: How are you thinking about democratizing philanthropy as SVP Denver’s Executive Director?

The first step is to diversify our partnerships. We're mostly white and gender equal. I'm very cognizant of the white male tradition that philanthropy and SVP was built on. 

We’d also like to leverage some of our experience from the Left Behind Workers Fund on how we're building trust in that community and create a module within each of our cohorts that explicitly focuses on community trust-building. 

And, we’re launching a community fellowship program to recruit thought leaders from the communities we serve to help inform who we're investing in, the organizations that we're serving, and what our programming looks like. 

Q: A year from now, where do you hope to be with centering equity and justice in SVP Denver’s work?

From an equity standpoint, I would like to break through this barrier of being a membership-based organization of wealthy philanthropists. I would love to have a much more diverse mix of community members that are participating in our partnership and making decisions about the organizations we support. 

We also really want to scale our programming to make our services accessible to more community-based and community-led organizations that have often been left out of traditional training and funding opportunities. Right now we have more organizations coming to us than we have partners to serve them because we are limited by our funding model. I would like to have a new funding model that's less exclusionary so that I can continuously match partners and skill sets with promising nonprofits that need support to increase their impact. 

It's really important to me that we're being really explicit with areas of opportunity for organizations, but also asking, “how can we support you moving forward?” We're trying to find organizations that are responsive to that and therefore have the best opportunity to scale and serve their community.

We've been the best kept secret in Denver and I want to showcase the work these nonprofits are doing and the shared values system that the Partners are also creating.

 Q: What advice would you give to other donors or SVP Partners who are also on this journey of reevaluating their giving to center equity?

Find ways to engage directly with the community, listen, and be respectful and responsive. Running these different programs, hearing feedback, and finding places to provide value quickly allows us to see where we can change and adjust.