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Community Voices: Social Venture Partners and the power of social impact – Q&A with Irv Cohen

Emilie Socash



Over the recent months, which have as their hallmarks a global pandemic, social unrest, and nationwide challenges on an unprecedented scale, it can feel difficult to imagine a bright future for our community. For Social Venture Partners Tampa Bay, however, it is the work of approaching these challenges through social impact that just might be one part of that positive tomorrow. SVP is a group of community members who have committed to creating the change our community needs by going beyond philanthropy to maximize social impact through the collective use of their resources and expertise. As part of an international effort, the Tampa Bay SVP affiliate demonstrates the shared global mission of cultivating effective philanthropists, strengthening nonprofits, and investing in innovative solutions.

Irv Cohen was one of the founders of SVP Tampa Bay six years ago, and for the past two years has served as the chair of the Tampa Bay affiliate as well as a member of the international leadership board.  I sat down with Irv to talk about his involvement with SVP and the social impact scene in St. Petersburg, Tampa Bay, and across the nation.  Irv is optimistic, and believes we can work together to help close the opportunity gap and create innovative solutions for social problems.

As an international organization, SVP states that its mission is to amplify the impact of those doing good and it does so by connecting and supporting donors, nonprofits, and social enterprises. How did this concept emerge right here in Tampa Bay?

Social Venture Partners Tampa Bay was founded six years ago from an important question on the minds of our local founders: “Where will the next generation of philanthropist come from?” Our early leadership reached out to Marlene Spaltan, the CEO for the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay, to determine the options of providing some sense of structure and scope as the group built itself out. Some six years later, we are now part of a network that includes 3,200 partners spanning 43 cities and nine continents. Each city raises its own funds, deploys those funds locally and has its own governing board, but shares a global perspective and unified theory of change.

I believe that the most impactful social change happens when the all parts of the support and benefit system are working closely together: donors, board members, like-minded agencies, and business minds. I’m proud to say that we embody that here in Tampa Bay, through SVP’s Fast Pitch and other hands-on SVP projects that have been inspired, launched, mentored and funded by SVP and our partners. All of those organizations can in turn, trace their continued impact to the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay and the important question that a forward-thinking group of community members had the courage to not only to ask, but to answer.

You have a tremendously deep leadership track record in the corporate realm, and during your time with SVP have applied these skills to help build out a model that prompts innovation. How has your personal and professional experience played a role in the work that you’re doing here in Tampa Bay in the social impact space?

I grew up in New York, and I always believed we should invest in our community. I spent 25 years in senior positions on Wall Street, and was responsible for relocating over 2,500 employees to a new location here in Tampa back in 2003. I had the chance to hold global positions that involved innovative technology, infrastructure development, the management of a very disruptive change across thousands of employees … all of which shaped my approach to driving results in a people-focused way. I look at my involvement with SVP as reflective of my upbringing and professional path: it’s in the connectedness of being a part of something bigger than yourself that really allows space for great things to happen.

And when I think about my family narrative — one filled with the struggle and discrimination that many other Jewish families felt throughout the 20th century — I also can hear the constant theme of “opportunity” throughout. My understanding of my own family’s struggle makes it impossible to ignore the struggles of others, which is why I am so proud of our recently formed SeedFunders Opportunity Fund. This focused fund is a derivative of SeedFunders, a venture capital/angel investing group I founded with Dave Chitester two years ago, in which we are looking to create those connections and access to capital for Black entrepreneurs that they may not have. I’m incredibly proud of the work that this effort will do, and how it can also be another piece of the social impact foundation we are building right here in Tampa Bay. Again, we are seeking to proactively close the opportunity gap.

What do you think it will take to change the social issues we are facing today, here in our local area and nationwide?

There’s a popular quote drawn from Pirkei Avot, which is a book of Jewish ethical commentary: “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” I think that when we look at the scale of the task of addressing the massive issues our society faces, it is overwhelming and would be easy to throw in the towel before we even begin. Yet we have the opportunity now to seize the urgency for change that is upon us right now. We need to organize the people, organize the resources, and organize the ideas that will allow us to get serious about social change. Each of us is a part of this, whether we like it or not—we each play a role in either maintaining the status quo or making change happen. But by becoming educated to this simple concept, we can each become confident enough to no longer accept that this is the way things have to be, that we each have a duty to make some change happen, and that while it’s a long and arduous task, we are called upon to do our part. When I think about groups like SVP, this defines our mission: we organize the ideas, the people, and the resources and make change happen.

What role do you feel that collaboration across nonprofits and foundations is in order to see a larger impact?

Our theory of change at SVP is centered on this very fact: collaboration with others, both individually and as organizations, creates a collective impact that exceeds what we each can do on our own. I don’t use the word “collaboration” lightly: it’s really the final step on the path where we see effective use of our shared resources, and is preceded by communication, cooperation, and coordination. We achieve true collaboration when each part of the collective has a shared part of the process, and “co-labors” together in a meaningful way. Those parts of our community that have been forward-thinking and have already coordinated the mechanisms for the delivery of services are well-positioned to be addressing our current crises; unfortunately, the time for collaboration was years ago for many of the challenges we face and we definitely do not have enough true collaborations in place. It’s more common to see competition, and even some of our most commonplace and well-meaning philanthropic mechanisms (including grant-making, and the use of donor-advised funds, and directed giving) are encouraging competition that is the antithesis of collaboration, and therefore prevents collective impact.

Even in cases where collaboration is attempted to be supported, challenges arise. In a recent situation in the Tampa Bay area, a funder saw two organizations working separately on a similar effort, and provided a grant for the to work together over the course of a number of years (with the ultimate goal of the two entities merging their separate programs). Yet when the two funded organizations requested additional help from the funder for short-term professional help on navigating the dynamics and difficulties of collaboration, they were denied because the funder felt this would increase “overhead.” To me, this example shines a light on the tremendous challenge and misunderstanding of the investment we need to make to make social impact happen.

Over the past few months, SVP Tampa Bay has hosted virtual gatherings and workshops. What are you seeing from other leaders in our region, and how are the SVP Partners activating?

Our Partners are extremely generous with their time in these critical conversations, and our SVP group as well as our community leaders who are approaching us as part of the bigger conversation have two things in common: a belief that the problems we face have a solution, and that they collaborate to work toward these solutions every day. I believe that when we pair up our Partners and community leaders with their diligent energy for solution-seeking, we will see tremendous and positive movement toward positive social impact.

How has Covid-19 affected the work that SVP Tampa Bay does, and where have you seen positive change among the challenges?

At our core, the SVP model is innovative and entrepreneurial, and we believe in investing the in the structure necessary to live these values. Early in the Covid-19 process, we expanded our professional team to build out our ability to reach and be in touch with more Partners, more organizations, and more segments of the community. We launched a series of webinars just for nonprofits on salient topics regarding reopening questions, funding sources (like the PPP), and a conscious move toward connecting more organizations with community members through our online Covid Assessment Recovery Engagement System (at http://tampabay.svpcares.org). We’ve taken action around systems change, seeking to shake up the typical involvement of community members in the cycle of giving to allow for another means of truly assisting the nonprofits through our Crisis Strike Teams, and also by keeping our partners apprised of the most urgent trends we’re seeing in our region through our ongoing Partner meetings.

How can people get involved with SVP and learn more about your model of social impact?

The word “social” is right there in our name: it’s the relationships between us and our true connections that make our impact happen. We are in a relational and transformational work, and we invite everyone who wants to do more than write a check to have a conversation with us. We’re very interested in welcoming new Partners who want to engage in the making of true change.

To learn more about SVP or to get involved, go to svptampabay.org or email info@svptampabay.org.



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