Social Venture Partners helps nonprofits navigate new challenges


The wide-ranging disruption brought by the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic was felt immediately across the U.S. nonprofit service sector — the people and groups who deliver aid and advocacy to tens of millions of people each year.

The looming question: would financially-stressed, socially-disconnected Americans, buffeted by cascading chaos and uncertainty, continue to support their favorite charitable causes?

The short answer: they did.

As reported by Giving USA 2021: The Annual Report on Philanthropy for the Year 2020, corporations, foundations and individuals donated an estimated $471 billion to U.S. charities during Year One of the Pandemic.

That’s a little more than $1.29 billion donated per day. And it was 5.1% more than the total of amount contributed in pre-pandemic 2019.

As in years past, the preponderance of America’s charity dollars came from individuals (78% in 2020), with 17% from foundations and 5% from corporations.

Yet, this epic generosity barely seems to accommodate the organizations straining to address the ever-rising number of societal problems and the people affected by them.

That’s a challenge faced by Social Venture Partners Pittsburgh, a nonprofit that nurtures the growth and development of other nonprofits.

SVP Pittsburgh was founded in 2001 to cultivate a new generation of “engaged philanthropists” — a means of building a “gateway to empathy” that links donors with social enterprises able to benefit from the donor’s professional expertise.

It’s a hands-on method of making sure that, when it’s time to “look for the helpers”, you’ll have a better chance of them being present if you encouraged them to be helpers in the first place.

SVP Pittsburgh’s current membership numbers around 40 active “partners” spanning a broad occupational spectrum of tech, healthcare, education, media, finance, manufacturing, law and more.

“Many businesses and individuals have a sincere desire to be involved in community causes, but they’re unsure how to begin,” says SVP Pittsburgh board member Emily Kinkead, a regulatory attorney and first-term member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. “SVP Pittsburgh offers guidance on how to become an engaged philanthropist.”

That guidance is deployed through the Full Circle Accelerator, a twice-a-year program of intensive 14-week consulting sessions designed to assist four or five local nonprofits per session.

Through a grant from The Pittsburgh Foundation and in collaboration with The Forbes Funds, an array of SVP partners serve as coaches contributing new ideas, fresh perspective, private sector financial capital and the invaluable social networking that every business — profit or nonprofit — needs to move forward.

Over 100 nonprofits have gone through the Full Circle workshops to date. “It’s a process that also benefits the coaches,” says SVP Pittsburgh board member Lou Camerlengo, president of fivestar*, a custom software development company whose employees commit to a minimum of 600 hours each year in support of Pittsburgh-area nonprofits. “It gives you the opportunity to be very hands-on, so you can see the impact you make. It’s a more direct way for like-minded people to connect in-person, not just through social media.”

However, 2020 brought a full stop to Full Circle. Like so many other groups acclimating to the new normal, SVP Pittsburgh suspended in-person programming for the year.

But they didn’t suspend their core mission of mentoring.

“We stayed focused on local nonprofit leaders and their organizations,” says Full Circle program manager Leigh Solomon Pugliano. “We were struggling ourselves, but we knew they were struggling even more. We met with a lot of nonprofits in 2020, even if they just needed to talk for a half hour, to help that leader through how they were going to survive the year and whatever came after.”

In May, 2020, SVP Pittsburgh launched the Nonprofit Crisis Support Initiative, a webinar program that aligns corporate and nonprofit leaders with emerging nonprofits seeking advice, strategy development and resources to sustain their organizations over the next few months.

With sponsorship from The Irick Group, SVP Pittsburgh also revived its Fellows Program designed to introduce civically-engaged newcomers to the basic concepts of philanthropy and then serve as coaches for Full Circle.

“We used the time to strategize about SVP Pittsburgh itself,” says Camerlengo. “How are we going to take our programs into a virtual format? There are pluses and minuses to being virtual, but if everyone worked to be as connected as if we were in-person, virtual could still be effective.”

In Spring, 2021, Full Circle Accelerator returned online with five participating nonprofits: Western Pennsylvania Diaper Bank, Awaken Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Learning Commons, When She Thrives and Divine Intervention Ministries.

“We focused on relationship-building,” says Pugliano. “We knew we would see success if we paired strong partners with organizations that most needed their skills. And if we could make those sessions engaging even on computer screens.”

Currently, SVP Pittsburgh is halfway through its Fall 2021 Full Circle session with Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania, ESTEEM Group, Style412 and The Greenwood Plan.

The Fall 2021 Full Circle culminates in a public Dec. 16 Final Pitch Event that provides a platform for the nonprofits to share their organizational goals and needs to a broader audience.

“Our biggest challenge is telling more people about what SVP Pittsburgh does,” Pugliano believes. “I think the joy our partners feel after giving their time to Full Circle keeps them coming back.

“You can always give a money donation and feel good, but when you give of yourself — your time, your skills, your experience — that’s an extra level of joy because of the extra impact you’re making.”