From The San Diego Union Tribune
By Michael Kinsman
As a busy and successful businessman, Dale Stein used to have a way of dealing with the nonprofits that always seemed to hover nearby.
"I told them: 'You need money? I'll write you a check. And if I give you more than you need, will you leave me alone?,' " Stein said.
That was before he figured out that the best investment he could make in a nonprofit organization was one of time, not money.
Stein is one of 53 members of San Diego Social Venture Partners, a group of businesspeople who have banded together to help nonprofit organizations become more stable and sophisticated in their operations. The group formed after learning about the success of a similar partnership in Seattle.
The venture partners target social organizations by providing them funding, management expertise and strategic guidance over a three-year period. The group's goal is to help nonprofit groups operate more efficiently, so they spend more time on their missions instead of having to scramble for operating cash year after year.
"Every nonprofit wants to feed 5,000 people when they have the resources to feed 50," said group member Alan Sorkin, a former housing developer who now devotes his time to nonprofit pursuits. "But the passion that exists in these organizations is amazing. It is passion most for-profit CEOs would kill for in their businesses."
Stein, who has been involved in founding or running companies such as Westec Security, Technology Assurance Group, IPx Connect and Glacier Water, is quick to agree. Tapping into that passion, he finds himself re-energized.
"I've had a lot of successful businesses through the years," he said, "but the most enjoyment I've ever had in my life is working with a nonprofit."
Stein, 57, currently is the venture partners' chief liaison with the nonprofit Human Development Foundation, a San Diego organization that is tutoring highly gifted students from lower-income and non-English-speaking families through its Open Gate program at Oak Park School in San Diego.
In addition, foundation tutors work with the children's parents to help them understand the curriculum the children are following. These tutors often communicate to the parents through languages other than English.
"San Diego Social Venture Partners has enabled us to do things we would have never accomplished on our own," said Marjorie Fox, who heads the foundation.
"It makes us more sophisticated because we've had some very strong businesspeople look at our organization and tell us what we needed to do to be more effective," Fox said. "There's no way we could go out and hire the experts they have been able to bring us."
The venture partners currently work with six nonprofit agencies, adding two a year in a three-year rotation. The group helps organizations working with teen mothers, education, work-force training and justice issues, Sorkin said.
It recently began working with Second Chance, a downtown social service agency that bought a Ben & Jerry's ice cream shop in Hillcrest. Second Chance operates Strive, a tough-love program for the long-term unemployed thay will steer some of its graduates in jobs at Ben & Jerry's for a six-month period to help them reacclimate to the work force.
The venture partners found that many of the issues facing the Human Development Foundation were like those that affect many other nonprofits in San Diego. The organization labors year after year to gain enough funding to keep its program rolling.
Stein estimates that Fox was spending 60 percent of her time just to raise the $160,000 her organization needs to operate each year.
"She spends her time and energy just trying to stay in business," Stein said. "We wanted to free her from that and let her concentrate on her program. We basically see what the needs of the organization are and then figure out a way to fill them."
When manpower or expertise is not readily available, the venture partners solicit help from other businesspeople. That's how Mike Richardson, a strategic planning specialist from Carlsbad, was recruited to assist the Human Development Foundation develop a long-range plan. Most of his work involves small and medium-sized, fast-growing firms, and Richardson found nearly an identical situation in the foundation.
"Most organizations are trying to grow so fast that they rarely take time to plan where they are headed," Richardson said. "They don't ever seem to have the resources they need to do that. With nonprofit organizations you have an even more acute set of circumstances with even less resources."
Richardson spent six months working with Fox to develop a strategic plan, eventually joing the Human Development Foundation's reconstituted and expanded board of directors. He said his involvement with the organization opened his eyes to the world of nonprofits.
"It really was an easy buy-in," he said. "It's a no-brainer when you see how your expertise can be used to help an organization. Who wouldn't want to help out once they see that?"
The venture partners also found two firms to help develop software for a computerized scheduling program for the foundation's tutors and at one point solicited donations of 26 personal computers for the gifted children whose families couldn't afford to buy them.
As part of its new strategic plan, the foundation will work with the venture group to develop a marketing strategy for creating a $2.5 million endowment that will allow the foundation to concentrate on expanding its educational programs.
Each member of the venture partners agrees to put up $5,000 each year, plus lending time and expertise to individual nonprofits.
Sorkin said he tries to find out what skills his members have and what interests they have.
"A lot of times you find someone who has skills, but is looking for something else to give them satisfaction," he said. "It isn't necessarily using the same skills you do eight hours a day."
Commitment levels vary. Some partners work a few hours a week with a nonprofit and others 30 or more. Many have spouses who participate.
"When you are asking someone who already probably has a packed schedule to do more, you want to make sure that their spouses approve," Sorkin said. "We found that by including them you eliminate the hurdle of them adding something else to their plate."
The venture partners carefully review nonprofits they may wind up supporting. Their goal is to find organizations doing socially beneficial work that have the potential to expand.
They want to provide some financial support, but larger amounts of business expertise.
"We can give them money – and do – but the management help we give them is more valuable," Sorkin said.
When he was approached about joining Social Venture Partners last year, Stein said he was immediately struck by the "sanity" the organization was taking into nonprofits.
He said finding people who share his values makes his experience with the venture partners more rewarding. He also appreciates that he is able to put his time and energy into a project to make sure his money was being wisely spent.
"The goal is to make the nonprofits we work with self-sufficient," he said. "We have a three-year commitment, and then we're gone. But if you really are committed to these nonprofits, why would you get out after three years?"