Darcy Brownell | City of Ideas

Posted 04/14/2017 by Amanda Holm and Leigh Handschuh

This month, the Giving Common team had the opportunity to interview Darcy Brownell, the Executive Director of Social Venture Partners (SVP) Boston, a network of philanthropists who strengthen nonprofits, invest in collaborative solutions and help individuals achieve greater impact with their giving. We were excited to learn more from Darcy about her personal connection to philanthropy, the impact of her work, and the ways the SVP Boston team is able to support local nonprofits.


Amanda: Thanks so much for speaking with us today. We’d love to start by learning more about you and your personal journey to your role at SVP.


Before my current position, I spent most of my career working in children’s literacy organizations. I was always a big fan of books and children’s books in particular. My first job out of college was as a book buyer, and I loved it. I got to meet a lot of my favorite authors and I encountered children coming into bookstores and being able to walk out with a special book. I realized then I wanted to work on getting all children books, regardless of family income.


As I worked on my master’s degree, I spent most of my time at an organization called Read to a Child and really became committed to improving the social sector. I took my firsthand experience to a membership organization that supports Fortune 500 Company CEOs in committing their organizations to improving the social good. I found myself at SVP about a year and a half ago; what really drew me here were the venture philanthropy model and the capacity building model. Having run a small nonprofit here in Boston, I knew how valuable that could be. The SVP model is an engaged philanthropy model. Our community partners (we have 90) will roll up their sleeves and help the nonprofits directly; we have a group of people who want to be deeply engaged. The partnerships we have are remarkable and seeing them collectively make a difference has been a great experience.


Amanda: I was looking over your list of grantees, and it includes many organizations whose great work we know well. Can you tell us a bit more about SVP Boston’s selection process?


Our focus is building capacity for early to mid-stage organizations. We look at organizations that have been established for some time, and need support to build capacity in order to move their mission forward. We focus on organizations serving children and families in the Boston area, specifically working with those that are at a point where they would benefit from an influx of cash and consulting to help them achieve significant growth in the next few years. We definitely use resources to figure this out, including the Giving Common, which has been such a great asset for us as we look into funding organizations.


Amanda: We’re glad to hear it! Can you share more about how we have been able to support you so far?


There have been two places where the Giving Common has been really helpful. First, the due diligence aspect! What’s been really incredible is we have been able to leverage the resource of the Giving Common to increase impact by tracking our organizations over time and seeing if they are continuing to have success with the support that we provide. We want to make sure they grow after we give support, not just in the time that we are supporting them. Additionally, we’re able to look at the broader nonprofit field within our community. This gives us some sense if our model is making a difference.


Amanda: With so many incredible organizations, can you share an anecdote from one of your grantees?


One of the unique parts of SVP is that we have the ability to work with an organization for three years. We spend the first year really getting to know the organization. The data gathering portion is really important. We’ve helped with theories of change, technology systems, etc. We recently partnered with Families First on building a new app that they use for their programs; using this app with their families has helped accelerate their progress.


Leigh: There is an assumption out there that donors aren’t as interested in supporting infrastructure, the nuts and bolts of organizations, versus programs. Are your funder and donor partners interested in this?


This work is so fundamental to the SVP model. One of our partners often says that he really values that SVP asked for him to give something more than just his money. SVP does have a dual mission to not only build the capacity of nonprofits but to also build and inspire a community of philanthropists. Many join to become strategic philanthropists themselves. They’re asking questions beyond what an organization’s overhead is etc.


Amanda: Thank you so much for sharing your story and SVP’s mission. Is there anything else you’d like to share about yourself or your organization?


Yes! The thing we most want nonprofits to know is that we’re here to help. Please take a look at our website to learn more about grant guidelines, how to apply, etc. While three years of strategic council might sound overwhelming, I encourage people to reach out to our partners and hear from them directly. We welcome your questions.