Pioneering ‘venture philanthropy’ in Canada

Staff members of LIFT Philanthropy Partners receiving outdoor skills training by participants of the Take a Hike Youth at Risk program (credit Vincent L. Chen)

Staff members of LIFT Philanthropy Partners receiving outdoor skills training by participants of the Take a Hike Youth at Risk program (credit Vincent L. Chen)

Today I was in Vancouver to participate in a Board of Directors meeting for LIFT Philanthropy PartnersLIFT is an organization that is pioneering ‘venture philanthropy’ in Canada. While the notion of venture philanthropy is novel, I find the concept to be intriguing and promising.

In a nutshell, LIFT Philanthropy Partners uses the methods of venture capitalists to provide social-purpose organizations with needed skills, expertise and resources to reach their full potential. The intent is to help our social sector improve its operations and the delivery of its programs.

Growing any type of organization — for-profit or social-purpose — is tough to do. There are over 200,000 social-purpose organizations in Canada with more than 50% being run by volunteers. Many of these organizations lack access to business networks and can’t afford high quality professional services. Therefore, LIFT works strategically with certain social-purpose organizations that show great promise. LIFT provides them with training and value-added expertise in areas like: strategic planning; performance management; governance and legal structure; human resource planning; communications and marketing; and fundraising and revenue generation.

In other words, LIFT provides business discipline to these organizations so that they can have a greater impact on the lives of Canadians. Isn’t the LIFT model rather unconventional? Wouldn’t it be better for LIFT to simply provide these organizations with program grants and then get out of the way?

No. My LIFT board colleagues and I believe that social programs will optimally benefit when we first invest in the management of the organizations that run the programs. We believe that superior management processes will generate superior results. We believe that LIFT can enhance the spirit of goodwill by infusing organizations with the power of business.

LIFT has already helped several not-for-profit organizations to scale up and become more effective.  The good news reported at today’s Board meeting was that one of the organizations that we had supported over the last three years had graduated! Take a Hike Youth at Risk Foundation is an alternative education program that helps at-risk youth to overcome personal issues, to complete high school and to develop employment skills. With support from LIFT, Take a Hike has now expanded from a single classroom in Vancouver to other locations. A second program was launched in the West Kootenays in 2013 and a third in Burnaby in 2014. Take a Hike is now poised for growth beyond the B.C. border.

Our Board also heard about an organization that has just been added to our social investment portfolio. Furniture Bank has been helping vulnerable people in the Toronto area by enabling the transfer of used household furnishings from donors to families in need. It also provides employment training and opportunities in the operations of its charity. Over the next 18 months, LIFT will provide a combination of management support and other resources to build Furniture Bank’s capacity and increase its impact. The focus of the Furniture Bank engagement is identifying ways to grow revenue and expand its employment program.

LIFT cannot achieve these kinds of results alone. The word ‘Partners’ in our full name ‘LIFT Philanthropy Partners’ refers to the partner network that works with us. We engage an extensive network of business experts who work hands-on with our organizations on a pro bono basis to implement the LIFT plan. This network includes KPMG, Boyden Canada, National PR and many other leading organizations. By working with these partners, LIFT multiplies the effectiveness of dollars that are donated by forward-thinking individuals, corporations, foundations and governments to our social-purpose organizations.

It was a good Board meeting today. I sensed that the practice of venture philanthropy could transform the way we address social issues in Canada and that LIFT will be the catalyst that drives this change. This is innovative and exciting!

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