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Unlocking New Philanthropic Capital: An Interview with Dennis Cavner

By Nell Edgington



Dennis CavnerIn this month’s Social Velocity interview we are talking with Dennis Cavner. Dennis is an investment advisor and philanthropist who, along with a few other philanthropists in Austin, has launched a new philanthropic investment vehicle called Innovation+. Through an extensive due diligence process over the last 6 months, Innovation + has identified and vetted a large group of nonprofits ready for significant growth and selected two which they will introduce to prospective growth investors. Their model  is a compelling variant on venture philanthropy that seeks to unlock untapped philanthropic capital. It will be interesting to watch.

You can read all of the interviews in our Social Velocity interview series here.

Nell: Explain Innovation + to me. What is it, and how does it work?

Dennis: Innovation + is a new community effort designed to enable transformational social impact. Our goal is to match proven social innovation with human and financial capital to change the world. We seek to identify a small number of nonprofit organizations that are uniquely poised for significant growth, thoroughly vet those organizations and their growth plans, and then select the most promising candidates for investment. We will make a multi-year commitment to each organization we select, assist in the refinement of their plans, help secure funding and additional human resources, and monitor the organization during an execution phase of 3-5 years. Our selection process is not a contest, rather it is a very thorough process of evaluation that results in a partnership between Innovation + and the community organization.

Nell: Why did you, Bill Forsberg and Suzi Sosa, decide to launch Innovation +? What did you think was lacking in the Austin philanthropic market and what are you hoping it will do for the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors?

Dennis: Austin has substantial untapped potential in its non-profit market. There are outstanding organizations, already achieving meaningful impact, that are poised for a strategic investment that can bring about a transformational leap in results and scale. We believe there are substantial pools of social capital that remain uncommitted due to a lack of coordinated effort to identify and vet the most promising opportunities. Our intention is to prove this hypothesis and catalyze a community of venture philanthropists who see this potential for radical positive change for our community and our world. Bill, Suzi and I have all had experience with high growth organizations and came together in this effort over the past year. Over the past twelve years I’ve had the great fortune of involvement with the Livestrong organization (the Lance Armstrong Foundation) as a board member, Chairman, and one of the architects of the Founders Circle that provided the early growth capital for that organization. I’ve seen Livestrong grow from two staff members and an annual budget of $250,000 to generate almost $400 million for the cancer cause and have a profound effect on millions of cancer survivors around the world. If you can make the right investment of time and money at the right time, it is amazing how you can impact people’s lives.

Nell: How are the traditional philanthropists you are talking to viewing this new form of philanthropy? Are they receptive or skeptical or both? What will it take to get them on board?

Dennis: Our target market is “nontraditional” philanthropists: successful entrepreneurs who have done well and want to give back, but who lack the time or other resources necessary to identify and vet the best high growth potential organizations. Not surprisingly, they love the Innovation + approach: find really smart people who are doing proven innovative work, then supply the resources necessary to replicate or scale that model for greater impact. Traditional philanthropists are also very receptive, as they appreciate the extensive due diligence and growth plan evaluation that we are bringing to the process. Our team of community activists bring to the table a broad array of skills and experience from both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors.

Nell: What are you looking for in the nonprofits you select? What is the magic combination of characteristics?

Dennis: We are focused on identifying organizations that have high growth potential. To achieve that growth we believe that they must be doing innovative work in their fields, that their models are capable of expansion or replication, and that their leadership is both capable and driven to succeed. We are not interested in startups, so we seek a group that can demonstrate that their innovative work is effective. A sustainable funding model is essential, and we favor organizations that have components of earned revenue in their mix. Strong community partnerships and a clear picture of the partnerships necessary to achieve growth are very important. There is a consensus among our group that leadership is THE key component for a successful growth partner.

Nell: How do you think your model fits into other innovative models of philanthropy around the country?

Dennis: There are some really great things going on around the country, and I am encouraged by all of the creative new efforts. Some will be very successful, others not so much. Experimentation is necessary to find new solutions in a changing world. The Innovation + model is somewhat akin to an investment banking model. We identify a high growth potential organization, vet them very carefully, help them subscribe the financial and human capital needed to execute their plan, then monitor and report. We are not a fund, where investors commit their capital and then we decide where it is invested. Rather, we present an opportunity to a funder and they can either invest or pass, depending upon their interest and appetite. We may partner with nonprofits that are serving the needs of the community in the areas of health care, education, animal welfare, the environment, or other sectors. We are not limited by geographic scope, per se, and favor growth opportunities that have the potential for national expansion. These are audacious goals, but we believe in the power of community to achieve amazing things.

Nell: What do you think is holding philanthropy back from becoming more innovative?

Dennis: I actually believe that we are in the midst of great innovation in philanthropy. It is occurring in pockets, and Austin is one of the key development labs that will lead the way. In addition to the Livestrong example, I can cite the RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service at the University of Texas and their Dell Social Innovation Competition, the RISE conference for entrepreneurs and social innovators, and a vibrant and creative business community that will respond positively to innovation. As we have discovered with Innovation +, Austin has a growing number of amazing nonprofits that are inventing new and effective ways of meeting the needs of the community. We are in an era of declining government ability to provide essential support to our citizens, yet the needs continue to grow. Nonprofits and businesses must do a better job of filling the gap of these unmet needs. The formation and deployment of capital in new and more effective ways is critical to achieving that goal, and I believe that Innovation + can help lead the way.

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About the Author: Nell Edgington is President of Social Velocity (www.socialvelocity.net), a management consulting firm leading nonprofits to greater social impact and financial sustainability. Social Velocity helps nonprofits grow their programs, bring more money in the door, and use resources more effectively. For more information, check out Social Velocity consulting services and clients.


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