Taking Small Risks, Then Taking the Leap

By Sara Beggs, Exponent Philanthropy

Before co-founding Arbor Brothers, which offers nonprofits 3-year unrestricted grants and extensive capacity building support, Sammy Politziner and Scott Thomas were living parallel lives: from University of Michigan to Teach for America to Wall Street. When they met up at a Michigan football game, both were questioning whether their Wall Street careers offered enough meaning.

Would they be more satisfied being part of the solution in a more direct way?

They knew several friends running nonprofits—friends with lots of passion but less know-how for managing an entire organization. Could these nonprofits benefit from learning and applying the finance and operations skills Sammy and Scott were using on Wall Street? Could Sammy and Scott translate this idea into a job?

Arbor Brothers co-founder Scott Thomas working with GirlTrek

Arbor Brothers co-founder Scott Thomas working with GirlTrek

Heading back to New York City, each agreed to plan weekly dinners with an individual who intersected with the nonprofit world. To ensure they would gather consistent information, they developed a set of questions to ask each dinner guest:

  • What do you do, so we understand the context of your responses?
  • From where you sit (e.g., academia, grantmaking, nonprofit consulting, nonprofit leadership), what do you think is missing in the industry?
  • What do you wish you had access to but don’t?
  • What would you (or the industry) need to improve nonprofit performance?
  • For two people who want to be helpful, what would you recommend we do?
  • Are there one or two other people you recommend we speak with? If so, do you think they would be open to an introduction, and would you be willing to make it?

From these simple dinners, two themes emerged:

  • There was a lot of money for proven models, and even a decent amount for the start-up phase. But, between years 2 and 10 (when the start-up money runs out and there isn’t yet a proven model), there are very few options for attracting big dollars.
  • Launching and funding a pilot program is one thing, but, when your program takes off and you find yourself managing a growing nonprofit for the first time, there are important organizational challenges that need to be addressed. Even the strongest nonprofit leaders often lack the time or experience to address these challenges (nor do they have the funds to pay a consultant to help do so).

When Sammy and Scott began to hear the same things over and over, they knew it was time to wind down the scanning process. Their next step: test whether they could make a go at strengthening nonprofit organizations during this critical “second stage” gap. They offered their consulting services to two nonprofits; to a third, they provided both consulting and a small cash grant.

Were they good judges of management and organizations, good at consulting, and enjoying the experience? Once confident in all three—and after two years working on the idea on nights and weekends, they left Wall Street in 2010 to lead Arbor Brothers full time.

Funders are constantly confronted with problems that need solutions. Sammy and Scott engaged in a series of simple steps that led them to something remarkable. They created a hypothesis based on what they knew and piloted a few interventions to see what worked and what didn’t.

They remind us that being part of the solution doesn’t have to involve rocket science; it can be about simple, deliberate steps; taking small risks; and jumping in once you know you’re on to something.

Download our new report Outsized Impact 2015 for more on the Arbor Brothers model, plus profiles of six other funders achieving great results for their communities and causes.

Sara BeggsSenior Program Director Sara Beggs focuses her time and energy on equipping philanthropists with the information and inspiration to achieve greater impact over time. 

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