3 Key Lessons That Have the Potential to Change the World! - An Exclusive Interview With Carol Thompson Cole, Venture Philanthropy Partners CEO

Adapted from a live Ideagen Radio Interview for the InterSection Quarterly Review and Huffington Post — www.VPP

“3 Key Lessons that have the potential to Change the World”

1. Could you please describe the missions and goals of Venture Philanthropy Partners?

Venture Philanthropy Partners is a philanthropic investment organization. Our goal is to make sure every young person in the National Capital Region (the Washington D.C. metropolitan area) has the opportunity to realize his or her dreams and aspirations. By investing in high performing nonprofits, we are doing our best to ensure that low-income youth from the region have a chance to grow into thriving adults.

VPP started out as an organization that was going to do philanthropy differently. Our founders brought the business principles they used to reach success in the private sector and applied them to achieve success in the philanthropic sector. Through our work at VPP, we aim to change young people’s lives — and we do this in three ways:

• We are working with the senior management team and board of directors at nonprofits to help them strengthen their organizations;

• We are building a community of investors. When I started out in my career, we didn’t have a lot of philanthropic giving in this region and we wanted to build that. VPP now has an investor community of about 90 families and individuals, and we’re currently working to get businesses to invest in us as well as other institutions; and

• We are sharing what we learn through our work with the field. VPP’s newsletter, reports and events where we share our best practices and lessons learned. Over the past 15 years, VPP raised more than $90 million. Our total portfolio serves over 45,000 low-income children and youth each year in the Washington, D.C. region to help them access quality education, health care, career training and a better chance for a brighter future. 

2. The topic of the latest Ideagen summit was Empowering Women and Girls. What needs to be done to empower women and girls as we head toward 2030?

Early in my career, there were not a lot of female role models for young women in leadership positions. In the 1980s, I was the youngest and the only women to be the city administrator in D.C. I believe having strong role models and mentors is one of the most important ways to empower young women and girls. 

In 2010, VPP launched youthCONNECT, a pioneering initiative to create a network of nonprofits working collectively to improve education, employment and healthy behaviors for low-income youth in the National Capital Region. Many young women are benefitting from this network. One young woman who participated in youthCONNECT was Jasmine. Jasmine attended the KIPP charter schools here in D.C. As she prepared to graduate from high school, Jasmine entered a program called KIPP Through College — a youthCONNECT partner program — which helps young people pick the right schools, navigate the college-application process, and then supports them during their college years.

Through the program, Jasmine grew close to her KIPP counselor, Ms. Bradley. After graduation, Jasmine went off to college in Florida. But during her freshman year, Jasmine stopped returning Ms. Bradley’s phone calls. It turns out she was in trouble — flunking out of school and feeling very alone. Ms. Bradley flew to Miami and helped Jasmine return to D.C. and figure out what to do next.

When they returned to D.C., Ms. Bradley called one of the other youthCONNECT partners, Year Up, which helps at-risk students train for careers in technology. She knew that Jasmine loved technology ever since middle school. Jasmine joined Year Up and secured an internship in the IT department at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank. She got counseling and housing help from another youthCONNECT partner, and now works at Bank of America. Jasmine’s mentors and counselors helped her re-chart her course and turn her life around.

Jasmine’s story exemplifies the support system that all of us need to help these young people really transform their lives.

3. What’s up next for Venture Philanthropy Partners?

VPP is currently focused on our youthCONNECT initiative. The five-year initiative, which ends at the end of this year, was created through a partnership with the federal government’s Social Innovation Fund (SIF).

The six local organizations that are part of the youthCONNECT network have not only taken their own work to the next level, but have also learned to collaborate to more effectively serve youth across our region. We’ve worked with the organizations’ executive directors to help them build a culture around collaboration. We work with the evaluations staff, too, because being able to show the measurable results of this model is crucial. We also work with the program directors that are on the ground doing the work every day. As a result, the organizations have started to see how to do things differently, while also creating more pathways to success for the young people they serve. For instance, KIPP DC has sent many of its young people who have struggled during their first year of college to Year Up and they’re finding their way back to college because of it.

With youthCONNECT, we set out to impact 20,000 young people in five years, and in the fourth year we served 17,400 young people, so we’re well on our way to meet or exceed that goal.

We’re now taking the youthCONNECT model and going into specific locations in the D.C. area. One jurisdiction has invited us to come in as part of a major community development initiative, which focuses on communities facing significant challenges. In January, the six youthCONNECT network organizations began to work in a high school. The pilot continues this semester and launches in the fall. We now have several other jurisdictions interested in this kind of work.

Our hope is that in the next five years we will prove this model’s success and expand to more locations. Our current portfolio, Capital Kids, which this work is part of, builds on VPP’s success in helping nonprofits work together to have a greater impact and seeks to improve the lives of 120,000 low-income youth in the region by 2020. We’re confident we can achieve that. 

4. Tell us about your innovative business model at VPP.

VPP is very business focused. We have taken the best of private equity principles and brought them together with the best of non-profit principles. We do a scan of what works and then we try to adapt that to what we do. We look for organizations that have outcomes and want to take them to the next level. We go in and help them strengthen the infrastructure of the organization. We start with a business planning process and determine which components of the plan to fund. Our investments are 3-5 years. Our staff has a variety of expertise in finance, youth development and government. We truly go shoulder to shoulder with our investment partners and take their organizations to the next level by getting in the trenches with them. 

5. Why do you think cross-sector collaboration is necessary? How can it be used to address some of today’s most pressing issues?

When I was a District agency director, I learned that it’s never really about the money; it’s about how you use the money. I would say to my colleagues that I was not going to ask for an increase in money for the next budget year unless we demonstrated better use of those funds. When I became the city administrator, D.C. faced serious challenges. AIDS was becoming a significant issue, homelessness was rising at an unprecedented rate and we had babies born in D.C. General Hospital and families weren’t taking them home from the hospital. I kept saying there is no way we can survive this situation alone. We started some public-private partnerships to tackle these challenges, and it was then that I realized the importance of collaboration.

When I left city government I decided to go into business because I wanted that experience to help me learn how to improve public-private partnerships from my government experience. At VPP, we are helping to bring all sectors together. I’ve seen that business leaders are very interested in health issues for low-income families as well as better education. While a lot of people care about these issues, I don’t think they’re aware of the innovative things others are doing. I truly believe we have to talk to each other more, sit down and figure out what we are doing (just as we’re doing with our youthCONNECT network), and align our resources and our actions.

6. What are three key lessons that you have learned that have the potential to change the world?

With the Summit’s focus on girls and young women, I’d highlight role modeling and mentoring as the first lesson. I have a poster next to my desk called “The Power of One” that I look at whenever I get down. One of the messages on the poster is from Rosa Parks and says, “Each person must live their life as a model for others.” I think we all need to follow that. Leadership is the second lesson. No matter what your aspirations are, if you don’t have transformative leadership, you won’t be able to reach your goals. The third is collaboration. If we don’t pull together and work on these issues together then we will never realize the change we want to see in the world.

For more information on Venture Philanthropy Partners and Ideagen visit:www.VPPartners.org and www.Idea-gen.com

04/13/2015 05:42 pm ET