San Diego Social Venture Partners: Building a better community


By Kathy Day

San Diego Social Venture Partners members say their organization is all about looking at philanthropy in a different way.

The 130 individuals, known as partners, come from all over the county but there’s a strong contingent of people from the North County area, including outgoing chairman Ray Ellis and his successor Tuck Forsyth.

“We really roll up our sleeves with our partners and get to know them,” said Ellis, noting that it‘s all about leveraging their collective skills. “It’s a three-year relationship – we don’t just walk away.”

The San Diego group, headquartered at 12555 High Bluff Drive, is part of an international organization. Around the world and locally its members not only invest money – a $5,000 contribution each year for three years is required – but they also invest their time and expertise to improve the community.

In addition to providing unrestricted cash grants, SDSVP provides skilled volunteer expertise to the targeted nonprofits, as well as other groups in need of a helping hand.

“We put the funds and human capital into an organization,” Ellis said. “A little of our expertise goes a long way.”

The strongest attributes of the group, Ellis said, are its “collective impact” on local nonprofits and in how much partners learn from each other about how to be better philanthropists.

Their efforts recently gained them recognition from the Association of Fundraising Professionals as San Diego’s Outstanding Philanthropic Organization for 2011.

Each year Social Venture Partners picks a special focus and carefully selects at least two nonprofits, which they call “investees,” explained Ellis, principal of the investment firm Ellis & Associates, LLC, who previously was president of the Marketing Services Division of Protocol Communications, a marketing services firm. He serves on several other boards and has announced he will seek the City Council seat now held by Sherri Lightner.

In 2011, the focus was on the military, a particular passion for Forsyth, who in October completed a four-year “phase out” from his career as a sales executive. He spent the last 20 years with Lee Hect Harrison and became involved with Social Venture Partners four and a half years ago after his wife died.

“I went from working for pay to working for the community,” he said, noting that he was introduced to the group by a friend. “I was always a sucker for a $200 phone call but never knew what my money was doing. This enables me to have a say.”

His most recent “say” has been as lead partner with REBOOT, a local initiative of the National Veterans Transition Services, Inc., that assists veterans in moving back to civilian life and finding meaningful employment. The partners also teamed up in 2011 with the Armed Services YMCA at Camp Pendleton

For 2012, the partners have picked education as the target, although they will stay connected to their military investees and others.

Look at the list of groups they’ve supported and you’ll see that children and youth programs have always been interesting to the organization, Ellis said, making this year’s focus on education a natural choice.

“We don’t know the answers,” said David Lynn, who works in La Jolla specializing in investments, database management and business analytics. He is serving as board liaison on the project that will involve seeking solutions to improve local schools as well as raising more money to that end.

The endeavor will also add a new layer as SDSVP enters its second decade, said interim executive director Marion Paul, who was an investee when she worked with Junior Achievement. This year’s education focus includes aligning with other groups that have common goals so they can have a collective impact, she explained.

“We want to help build the capacity of a sector, in this case education,” she added.

Lynn said they will select at least two nonprofit investees and will team up with San Diego Grantmakers, which works to stimulate local philanthropy, and other organizations to pull together a countywide effort to find better ways to educate students.

The process of deciding which nonprofits to support begins with a Discovery Team, which polls partners on what groups they might want to help. Then they invite in experts in that sector who share their thoughts and challenges in that particular arena.

Next, the Investment Working Group of 30 steps in to evaluate proposals and select the investees. Then the real work starts and a team leader steps up.

Ellis said that’s often “someone who falls in love with that nonprofit.” That person becomes a key point of contact and forms the team.

The help comes in a variety of ways, from Resource Teams that step in to assist with fundraising efforts, management practices, developing their boards and leaders, as well as providing financial management, information technology or marketing and PR expertise.

Each year during the three-year relationship, the partners and investees develop an annual plan. But it’s not just about the nonprofit, Ellis said. “We measure us and them against program outcomes and the impact in the community.”

And, Paul noted, it’s not about raising money for them but also about helping them raise money and building a stronger organization.

Often partners go beyond their donations to Social Venture Partners and make individual contributions to the nonprofits as well as rounding up corporate donations for them, she added. “It’s about leveraging our resources to get more.”

To date, that impact has been great. In 2011, the partners gave $175,000 in direct cash contributions; add in-kind services, additional personal donations and 9,510 hours of volunteer time and the tally hits $1.7 million in value to the community, according to the annual report.

And, in case you were wondering, yes there is a “social” in Social Venture Partners. Members get together for social gatherings as well as having fun with their projects, Paul said, noting that again this year they helped the Community Resources Center put together 300 gift baskets.

Learn more at