Location: Charlotte, North Carolina
Jen and her husband, Bill, first joined the Charlotte, North Carolina affiliate of Social Venture Partners in 2010. They wanted to give back to the community and, as Jen puts it, “volunteer on a strategic level.” Social Venture Partners (SVP) is a collaborative network of engaged donors who pool their resources to invest in the local community. Jen appreciated the fact that SVP was a philanthropic initiative they could join as a couple and that it encompassed a wide swath of ages as well. She also valued SVP’s depth of expertise in that its membership reflected many different professions and perspectives. “It felt like as a group of people, there was a lot of thought about which nonprofits to support.” Jen also appreciated the fact that SVP’s support translated into “a long-term and strategic relationship” with just a few nonprofits and a considerable investment of time, resources and finances. By investing in this way – more than simply writing a check – SVP has had a deep and meaningful impact on those nonprofits it selects. “It is so difficult to select just a few nonprofits for investment,” Jen says, “from so many doing such important and inspiring work.” So the partnership in Charlotte decided to adopt a creative solution that some other SVP affiliates had implemented to address this limitation while simultaneously expanding its support and community involvement.
In 2011, SVP launched SEED20, an annual fastpitch competition for local nonprofits. Anyone in the community with an idea for a nonprofit or an existing nonprofit that wants to start a new program or initiative is encouraged to apply each year. Applicants submit their proposals in the fall and a committee then selects twenty of them to compete. They are assigned volunteer coaches (local business and civic leaders) and spend months working on their mission and their pitch. In the spring, all twenty present their pitches to the coaches and SEED20 committee members who winnow the group down to ten finalists. Those ten then present their pitches at a SEED20 competition to a venue packed with community members who want to be inspired and who get to vote on that year’s winners.
Jen says that over $40,000 will be given away this year in prize money. And unlike a grant or money that is earmarked for specific programs or goals, she adds that “this prize money comes with no strings attached.” But the support extends far beyond the large checks that some of the competing nonprofits are lucky enough to receive at the end of the night. All twenty of the nonprofits (the ten who present up on stage and compete for prize money as well as the ten semifinalists) are given essential exposure to the community and opportunities to meet and build relationships with each other and other key sources of support. “Paths cross that otherwise wouldn’t,” Jen says. “And sometimes the nonprofits join forces.”
Jen served as a coach the first year that SVP launched SEED20. It is now in its ninth year and Jen has been in a leadership role ever since, having served as the lead partner overseeing it and currently contributing to the marketing efforts. I have seen firsthand the amount of work and time that the SEED20 competition requires of those ensuring its success each year, and I am so grateful that Jen and the other devoted volunteers have continued to run it annually. I remember attending the SEED20 competition the year that Trump won the election and it was such a needed and rejuvenating evening of inspiration and hope to contrast the despair I felt at what his presidency would mean for our country. Knowing that there are folks out there with great ideas for meeting myriad community needs who are willing to use their ingenuity and passion to offset some of the ways we have regressed since Trump took office helps me cope in a very tangible way while I await next November.
It is hard to describe how inspiring the SEED20 program is because it inspires on so many different levels. There are the emerging and established nonprofits, of course, and they are innovative and energizing on their own. But there is also a palpable energy in the theatre that is filled with people who, like me, have looked forward to this night all year. A reception follows during which those in attendance can meet all of the competing nonprofits and sign up to volunteer with their initiatives, offer financial and other support, and sign up to become part of their mailing lists and keep informed on their progress. Whether it is initiatives that tackle a problem I never knew existed (such as a camp for adults with disabilities who have aged out of community and school-sponsored programs) or an innovative solution to a pressing issue (using grubs to tackle school lunch waste), I always leave feeling enlightened and inspired. And with the sense that I am not doing enough.
If you are local to Charlotte (or close enough – it is definitely worth a road trip!), I highly recommend getting tickets to this year’s event that will be held on March 31st at Charlotte’s Knight Theatre. Or you can choose to follow Jen’s lead and look into starting an initiative of this sort where you are. Every year is different, but the one constant is that issues needing community attention are given a spotlight and access to essential support. As Jen puts it, “it feels good to have some impact on the conversation.”
For tickets to this year’s SEED20 event: https://www.blumentahlarts.org/events/detal/seed20-2020/
If you’d like more information or want to watch videos of past pitches or read about this year’s class, check out www.SEED20.org.