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Catalyze 2021: Irv Cohen of Social Venture Partners, St. Petersburg Foundation

Margie Manning

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We’re asking thought leaders, business people and creatives to talk about 2021, and give us catalyzing ideas for making St. Pete a better place to live in what will surely be a changed – and charged – post-Covid world. What should our city look like? What are their hopes, their plans, their problem-solving ideas? This is Catalyze 2021.

Wall Street veteran Irv Cohen is applying business principles to the nonprofit world as he works to help charitable organizations accomplish their goals in 2021.

He wants to see more partnerships and collaborations that allow nonprofits to move the needle and make a difference in the most pressing needs in the community.

“One of the answers is being able to deploy collective impact, where nonprofits start to work closer together under the auspices of a lead partner or infrastructure,” Cohen said. “It helps them come together, which allows for greater capacity to raise funds and at the same time commits to a shared services arrangement, where they are able to share resources and only do something once, whereas now they are having to do it multiple places because they are competing against each other, such as common technology, common legal, common development, things of that nature.”

The concept is not entirely new, but is needed now more than ever, as next year shapes up to be a very challenging time for nonprofits.

“Nonprofits are going through survival games right now. They all compete for funding and talent and it’s only been exacerbated by Covid,” Cohen said. “I’m amazed by how some nonprofit CEOs are asked to do things that even CEOs at large companies would have trouble doing — work on capacity building, board development, mission and grants —  and at the same time they’re hit with Covid which has increased the demand for their product, so to speak, and also has impacted their funding, which depends on big events and galas, which bring in one-third to one-half of their potential revenue.”

Government funding will be another challenge in 2021, as revenue from sales tax is projected to decline, while volunteers who are reluctant to work in close quarters have disappeared.

Cohen, who led JPMorgan’s Treasury Services’ operations move to Tampa, now lives in St. Petersburg, where he is founding partner and board chair of Social Venture Partners Tampa Bay chapter and a board member at St. Petersburg Foundation. Both organizations are working with nonprofits on scenario planning, funding capabilities and capacity to meet demands.

Sharing services can allow nonprofits to better accomplish their mission, which would appeal to large institutional donors, Cohen said.

“Some of these nonprofits have had their world blown up. They’d like to get a donation but do they have the capacity to handle it, are they able to accomplish their mission? If they can better accomplish their mission, as a donor I would like to know that,” Cohen said. “There are emotional donations and they will continue. But I’m talking about moving the needle in the community on bigger problems and the only way that will be done is by bringing together people, bringing together nonprofits. It doesn’t have to be physically under one roof, but sharing services, sharing a vision so they can go out to the larger foundations in the country. The big JPMorgans, Bank of America, they say bring me the big problem where I can be part of a larger solution for the community. I don’t want to buy another table at a gala, I want to move the needle with workforce development, housing issues, early childhood education, things that are really pressing.”

Separately, Cohen chairs the Seedfunders Opportunity Fund, which is making pre-seed investments in Black-owned startups throughout Florida.

“We will announce our first investments in the next month or so. We will be that friends and family round to launch some of these entrepreneurial efforts,” Cohen said. “If we help one or two entrepreneurs and they’re successful, that will build a bridge to the future, which is so important.”

Startups also provide the talent that can draw major corporations to the community, Cohen said.

Some of the work Cohen is describing already is underway. He cited the efforts going on in the Lealman community, where the Pinellas County Commission is trying to close an opportunity and wealth gap in the community. Cohen’s groups are due to make a report to the county commission in the first quarter of 2021, and he is confident that work can be replicated elsewhere in the county.

“Ultimately, the client is our citizens. We can provide a more meaningful service response on a quicker basis and more efficiently, and the beauty of it is we can track it, so that funders or philanthropists or government agencies funding these things can understand where the dollars are going, where it’s helping and where it’s not, how we can improve things,” Cohen said.

NOTE: Joe Hamilton, publisher of the St. Pete Catalyst, is a partner who works with Cohen at St. Petersburg Group, St. Petersburg Foundation and Seedfunders.

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