Partner Q & A: Ron Sinha

October 31, 2012

Ron SinhaRon Sinha has been an Associate Partner at LASVP since 2011. In addition to his work with LASVP Investee Synergy Academies, Ron helped coach Tamika Butler of Young Invincibles to victory at this year’s Social Innovation Fast Pitch.

Q: How were you introduced to LASVP?

Ron: I was introduced to Diane Helfrey by a high school teacher of mine from back in the day, Ari Engelberg, who happened to work at Bright Star Schools, one of LASVP’s early investees. Upon moving back to LA, I had mentioned to Ari that I wanted to stay connected in the social sector here and he thought LASVP would be a good start. After that, I talked to Diane and attended some events and knew that it’d be a great group of people to work with.

Q: Why did you join LASVP?

Ron: Back in Boston, I worked in social impact strategy consulting / research, and loved it. I wanted to stay involved in a volunteer capacity in that type of work out here since the job I moved back for was in a completely different space! I think connecting high-performing organizations with the resources they need is key to propelling the sector forward, and LASVP works in many ways towards that goal.

Q: What do you think is the biggest barrier to creating social change?

Ron: The misallocation of resources, ranging from financial resources to human capital.

Q: What social issue are you most passionate about?

Ron: It’s a tie between economic empowerment and youth education.

Q: What do you look forward to on the weekends?

Ron: Acting, writing, movies, running and hanging out.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about what it’s been like to work on a volunteer project with one of our Investees?

Ron: Interested in unique and effective models around education, I jumped at the opportunity to leverage my analytical skills on a project with one of our investees, Synergy Academies. I am working with a few other partners and members of the school staff to analyze and improve the school’s internal finance tools, and to build a performance dashboard that can ultimately be used by the school’s board to drive operational decisions. In addition to providing me with the opportunity to apply my quantitative mind to the sector, this has allowed me to gain exposure to a high-performing school in the area and the fantastic staff and students that make it what it is.

You can read more about our Partners on our website.


Why It Matters: Mother’s Day Radio

October 31, 2012

Shaunelle Curry, Mother's Day RadioShaunelle Curry’s Fast Pitch presentation at the event in 2011 was one of the most memorable the audience heard that night. In her pitch (which you can see here) Shaunelle described the impact that Mother’s Day Radio, the media literacy and peer mentoring program she founded, had on students who participated: 9 out of 10 now students talk to their friends about breaking the cycle of emulating media violence.

One of those students is 16-year-old Sean.* When Sean arrived at his first Mother’s Day Radio class, it was clear that he wasn’t interested in hearing anything the program had to teach. “He was wearing the whole ‘cool thug’ thing, just laughing at the whole process,” says executive director Shaunelle Curry.

One of the peer mentors assigned to Sean’s class, a college student whose high school days weren’t that far behind him, saw himself in Sean. He understood the pressure young men faced to live up to a tough guy persona. He took the time to talk to Sean one on one, and went through an exercise with him. He asked him to think of a woman that he knew and respected. Sean chose his mom. They then inserted her name into the lyrics of a violent and misogynistic song. When you disrespect women as a group, the peer mentor pointed out, you’re disrespecting the women in your life.

They sat down to talk about this, and Sean’s whole façade just fell apart. The significance of what Mother’s Day Radio was trying to teach clicked for him. From that day on, he stopped treating the program like a joke.

Sean became the class’s most outspoken advocate. When the class was discussing whether trying to put a stop to violence and misogyny in the media was even possible, he was the first to stand up and say, “We have the power to make a change. We have the power and creativity to come up with solutions.”

The difference that Mother’s Day Radio makes in the lives of young men is just as important as the impact it has on young women. “They learn that they have a choice to define their manhood in their own way,” says Shaunelle.

Since participating in the Fast Pitch, Shaunelle has made several new connections, including one that led to meeting with Mayor Villaraigosa. “Fast Pitch has been an amazing experience.”

*Name changed


Partner Nelson Cheng’s Thoughts on Philanthropy

October 31, 2012

Nelson ChengBefore becoming a Partner in Los Angeles, Nelson Cheng was part of SV2 in Silicon Valley, one of the 27 Social Venture Partners member organizations in the United States, Canada, India, and Japan.

In recent years, one of my former colleagues at Google has become more involved with philanthropy — she and her boyfriend have done well financially and have wanted to become more active and engaged with nonprofits that they’re passionate about (she typically focuses on animals + the environment). She came to re-connect with me because she was reading “Philanthrocapitalism” and an organization that is featured in it, SV2 — I’m connected to. When I lived in Silicon Valley, I used to be a partner and on their board for a period of time — they did a little marketing piece on me because, at the time, I was one of the few younger partners and that’s how she ended up making the connection. There were many great benefits to SV2 but the two biggest for me was the ability to see many great nonprofits quickly (SV2 essentially acted as a high quality filtering mechanism) and connecting with many like-minded individuals who wanted to give back on a financial and potentially strategic level.

I started off doing stuff with nonprofits in high school. I used to volunteer at the local chapter of the American Cancer Society — they weren’t particularly computer savvy and so I would go in for a few hours every so often and do some very light database work. I really didn’t have any connection to ACS but I did like the idea of doing something “good”. I will say that I felt totally disconnected to the cause or even a sense that I was doing anything good — I think it’s hard to feel that way when you’re just going into an office, sitting at a computer, and then emerging a few hours later — especially when you’re 16 or so.

In college, I probably did nothing nonprofit-wise — which is weird because that’s likely one of the best times to do things. You’re just surrounded by potentially a lot of like-minded and socially active individuals. I was probably too focused on my grades and my future business career prospects (or at least worrying about them) and didn’t take advantage of a great opportunity.

However, when I was at amazon.com, a new thought occurred to me: “Nonprofits are run by passionate individuals who may or may not have business experience. Couldn’t I, as someone who has some business experience, bring that to a nonprofit and help them?” So I set about doing that — first by volunteering with a firm that basically provided free consulting help to nonprofits. It was me + an ex-Boeing exec helping a nonprofit founder / ED (Tanya) who was creating a nonprofit that did cancer therapy through knitting. We helped her write the business plan.

I also joined the board of a nonprofit in San Diego called StandUp for Kids which helps homeless children. I’ve long been drawn to causes that, for lack of a better term, give people a chance in life. Not everyone gets a chance along with the resources and opportunities — the thought of children being homeless was (and still is) mind-boggling to me. What future does a homeless child have and, of more immediate importance, how in the world can they get off the street and start building toward something?

Because I live in Los Angeles now, I’m involved with the equivalent organization, LASVP (Los Angeles Social Venture Partners), which, along with SV2, is part of the Social Venture Partners network. Their membership is comprised of individuals who have some financial capacity to support nonprofits while also wanting to engage on a more strategic level. The major difference with LASVP is they also put on an annual “Fast Pitch” competition to help nonprofit leaders think about how they market their organization. Non-profits get 2+ months of training / coaching on honing their elevator pitches which they eventually deliver in front of an audience. (I went last year and it was a spectacular event – George Lopez hosted and had special guests including Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Michelle Branch. The Annenberg Foundation was one of the sponsors and the nonprofits got exposure to many potential funders.)

These experiences were broadly very instructive and still heavily define my perspective on nonprofits and philanthropy to this day. Over the years, because of various roles I’ve played, I’ve gotten to know maybe not dozens, but many nonprofits and their founders. With rare exception, they’re universally extremely passionate, driven people who want to do good.

So I guess the larger question here is, what to do if you’re a person with some means, maybe some ability + time, and some interest in doing “good” so to speak?

I like growth. I want to help great nonprofits go from small to big. I want them to have a giant footprint and help lots and lots of people. I suspect one path is in finding the right nonprofit — one that’s run by a founder / ED who believes in investment and infrastructure and growth. It’s really hard to diversify off of donations as the primary revenue stream — but one that has some cushion so the staff is not running after every donation just to keep the lights on. And frankly, probably one that has great marketing ability — orgs like Robin Hood and Tipping Point have proven this to be true.

The alternative, which is an idea that I’ve been toying with for a long time but haven’t figured out a model that I like or how exactly I’d like to fund it, is to found my own non-profit. The Social Venture Partners model is one part of the ecosystem — but I think there are more opportunities for impact when you’re running a massive fund (e.g. tens of mililions+ $).

Here’s the question I need to answer. How did great and large nonprofits of today get there? Was there some trigger beyond slow, massive growth over time? I want to figure out which ones went from helping 0 to 100,000 in 5 years and how’d they do it — and then figure out how to help more become like that.


Investing in Potential: LA Diaper Drive

October 5, 2012

LA Diaper Drive is the second largest diaper bank in the country, and has the unique position of being the only diaper bank using diapers as an incentive for attending GED prep and life skills classes. LASVP connected with LA Diaper Drive through the 2011 Social Innovation Fast Pitch, and the organization is now one of our investees. 

Since it was founded in 2005, LA Diaper Drive has been run out of Caroline Kunitz’s home, and the family’s two-car garage was the only storage space they had.  This was never the most convenient set up, but Caroline was willing to do what she had to in order to help mothers in need.

Caroline says that one of the most memorable days she has had at LA Diaper Drive is the first time a donation of 100,000 diapers showed up at her doorstep.  “At that point, we hadn’t even given away that many diapers,” says Caroline, much less tried to store that many all at once.  With no volunteers on hand, Caroline, her housekeeper, and the truck driver teamed up to haul all 100,000 diapers up the steep driveway and stack them up in the garage.  “We tried putting them in strollers and rolling them up the hill,” Caroline remembers with a chuckle.

Despite the space limitations, LA Diaper Drive has given away over 4 million diapers.  Thanks to a connection from LASVP, they look forward to giving away many more in the future.  LASVP helped LA Diaper Drive locate a donated warehouse space with a professional loading dock and staff, which will allow them to accept many more donations.  Before gaining the warehouse space, the organization was forced to turn big donations away.  Thanks to the connection from LASVP, LA Diaper Drive can finally unleash its full potential.

You too can aid this amazing work by donating to LA Diaper Drive through their website. Thanks to connections they have made with the larger community, LA Diaper Drive receives a 75% discount on diapers they purchase. $218 can keep a child properly diapered for a year, and $918 provides a full year of service to both the parent and child.


Partner Q & A: Amy Friedman Cecil

October 5, 2012

Amy Friedman CecilAmy Friedman Cecil has been an LASVP Partner since 2011, and she’s doing it all. From Fast Pitch to investees to Partner education, Amy’s there!

Q: How were you introduced to LASVP?

Amy: I was introduced to LASVP by my good friend Nancy Hammerman.  She took me to a open house event where I heard many people speak about the organization.  I was really impressed with the impact LASVP had on both its investees and its partners.  I was also excited by the diversity and energy of the partners.  By the end of the afternoon I had committed to LASVP and am very glad to have made that decision.

Q: What is your favorite part of being involved in LASVP?

Amy: My favorite part about my LASVP involvement is the range of experience it offers.  Since joining last year I have consulted with GrowingGreat and have led a focus group to get input on a new service delivery module. I am part of the Fast Pitch planning team and have participated in the pre-screen and full application review and selection and am assisting at the Fast Pitch coaching sessions (yes- that was me with the camera).  I am also part of the Partner Education committee along with Amy Johnson and Ellen Sloan.  This is a wonderful opportunity to work with two very intelligent women at very different trajectories of their careers and to create a curriculum which will have a broad and deep influence over how and what partners can learn through this organization.

Q: What inspires you to make a difference?

Amy: I have been a volunteer since my childhood.  What I have learned is how very little it takes to change someone’s life for the better.  You don’t need much experience, or much time, money or effort to make an impact.  But with a greater investment of any or all of the foregoing, magical things can happen. I am constantly amazed by the way in which the process of working with others is so rich and rewarding.

Q: What do you listen to when you’re stuck in traffic?

Amy: My traffic distraction really depends on my state of mind.  If I am calm I can listen to KCRW/NPR or KPFC, although the broadcast material itself might get me upset.  If the traffic is really bad I may have to blast Ben Folds or the Decemberists to keep me going. If I am in need of soothing, it is a toss-up between classical or Joni Mitchell on CD.

Q: Who was your favorite teacher in school?

Amy: My favorite was Mrs. Hibblein, my first grade teacher, because she was so supportive and kind.  This is my best memory of her: We were sculpting an animal to go with a book we had been reading and I was trying to fashion wings for my swan. I could not get the wings to stand up because the dough was too heavy.  She came over and told me not to give up, but rather to imagine what the swan looked like in many positions.  She said she knew I could make it work (shades of Tim Gunn).  When she came back, I had carved lines on the swan’s back and told her that his wings were folded.  She was so delighted at the way I solved the problem that even at that age I felt empowered.  That first grade swan still sits on my desk.

Q: What do you think is the biggest barrier to creating social change?

Amy: Imagination and implementation.  There are so many barriers: financial, partisan politics, lack of time, a lack of hands and help, the incredible magnitude and complexity of the problems which need to be addressed. It sometimes seems that large-scale social change is impossible and this is disheartening.  But then someone imagines a better life and has the courage to implement their idea and things happen.  It takes imagination to see that change is possible, to craft a shape it can take, and then to see it to fruition.

You can learn more about our Partners, here on our website. 


Passionate Philanthropy, Real Impact

October 5, 2012

LASVPIt was wonderful to see everyone at the Partner Meeting on September 24th. It’s always beneficial when we can come together to share ideas and challenge each other to think more deeply and strategically about our goals. As you’re probably aware, we’ve established our new strategic direction and we’re ready to take it to the next level.

Diving Deep…
Investment committee co-leads, M-K O’Connell and Alex Soschin, gave us a refresher on our new investment model and led us through the results of our most recent Partner survey. Based on Partner survey results and validated by discussion, our permanent social issue will be education. Education was far and away the number one choice of the Partnership, and it’s an area that we have always been passionate about. This is such an exciting choice for us since we’ll be able to learn deeply about the area and continue to collaborate with others in this field. Education offers us such a dynamic range of choices, undoubtably we’ll find compelling ways to make an impact. The next step toward moving forward is to hone in on a particular aspect of education for our 2013 investment cycle.

Keeping it Fresh…
The next challenge for us is to find the first issue for our varied social issue investment cycles. By first selecting a social issue to learn more about, we’ll be able to understand the space better when we begin to look for exciting and compelling organizations to engage with throughout a 3+ year investment cycle. The results of the Partner survey were a little more varied around this type of investment. We had strong support for the areas of environment, employment, and human services, just to name a few! Finding an issue to focus on, balanced with looking at specific organizations and the creative social entrepreneurs who run them, will allow us to be more strategic in our decision-making while still giving us a variety of possibilities to keep our philanthropy fresh. Keep your eye out for the next survey, Partners. We still have a little more work to narrow down our choices.

Transforming Los Angeles…
We also had the chance to hear from our Investee, LA Diaper Drive, about how they use diapers as a medium of change for children living in poverty. LA Diaper Driver founder and board chair, Caroline Kunitz, shared with us the potential for transformation present in their work, citing that when diapers are used as an incentive, enrollment in life-improving classes doubles and even triples. To date, they have helped over 25,000 families! And there are volunteer opportunities for LASVP Partners on the horizon. LA Diaper Drive is looking for help with Board Development, Program Evaluation, Branding and Marketing, and Building Corporate Relationships. Contact us to find out how you can help.

Connecting Passion to Progress…
We’re excited by the progress that’s been made so far and for the truly helpful feedback of our Partnership. As we discover the ways we can have an impact, we’re so glad we have the opportunity to join together with thoughtful people who are passionate about the future of our city.

If you missed the Partner Meeting and want to know more, there are several things you can do. You can view the slides from the meeting here, fill out the next Partner survey that will help us narrow the choices for our rotating social issue, contact Diane with questions, or contact co-lead Partners Elyssa Elbaz and Donella Wilson to find out about volunteering with LA Diaper Drive.