Networks Move the Needle

Exponent Philanthropy recently released its annual Outsized Impact report, an e-publication filled with funder stories and stats to illustrate the power of those who give with few or no staff, including the story below. Read the full report >>

By Elaine Gast Fawcett on behalf of Exponent Philanthropy

If you invite Melissa Jones to a meeting, she’ll say all the things other people are afraid to say out loud. “People know I’ll rabble-rouse,” she says. Jones is an individual donor, a partner in the donor collaborative Social Venture Partners, and a consultant who connects nonprofits to networks and systems of change.

One example: She believes more foundations should sunset. “I want to destroy all the benefits foundations get year after year. How about this? You get one tax break when you start a foundation, and that’s it. If people want to talk the talk about reallocating wealth, let’s do it. I would rather see foundations spend their money now rather than perpetuate for years.”

Nonprofits have proliferated in America since the 1970s and even more so since 9/11, but we’re not moving the dial on social problems, she says. In some cases, we’re slipping back.

Transferring money alone is not effective, she says. Funders must work with nonprofits to build networks, and that means deeply understanding the cause and joining the fight. “Real change happens when funders tap their networks, use their influence, and advocate for policy and behavior change. That’s what will make the difference in moving social problems.”

Jones inherited wealth in her late 30s after the sale of her father’s tech company. “Before the company sold, we thought about starting a family foundation. I moved to the Bay Area to really understand what we would be getting into. I started thinking deeply about giving and became a scholar— immersing myself in the deep thinking in philanthropy that was happening in the West.”

Ultimately, the family decided not to form a foundation, and it was in the Bay Area that Jones first became involved with Social Venture Partners. She is now working with others to create a chapter of Social Venture Partners in the Washington, DC area. She first started funding in the food space and still does today. She spends a lot of time learning from the groups she supports and actively networking on their behalf.

“I was interested in food, so I went to my local farmers market and talked with farmers, learning about the issues they face. I wondered: Why can’t some communities get healthy food? I started studying the root causes and deeper issues that create the circumstances in which people go hungry: poverty and equity issues, the economic aspects of food access, and how housing and transportation come into play.”

Wanting to learn more, she volunteered in a kitchen at an organization housing the homeless. “I was able to connect the chef of this kitchen to the local farmer’s market to glean fresh fruits and vegetables. I talked to my friends in real estate when I found out the organization needed landlords to help the homeless secure housing. And I held a happy hour benefit on my roof deck, telling my friends and colleagues about these issues and how they can share them with their friends.”

“In philanthropy, there’s often an attitude of either we know it all or we know nothing,” she says. “Funders have a real opportunity to educate themselves on issues and disseminate that information to their community.”

“Giving is secondary,” she says. “It’s a privilege, and I love to be able to do it. Yet what’s amazing is when I am drawn deeper and deeper into being a better citizen of the world.”

“Everyone has the potential to make big change. All it takes is to pay attention, use our critical thinking skills, call on our networks, and connect people. Our brains are wired for that.”

Other posts in the series
Spending Up Now, Not Later
Reclaiming Hope in Houston
Small Steps Toward Changing a Community’s Narrative
Foundation Catalyzes Change in Support for First-Gen College Students

Read additional funder stories in the Outsized Impact report >>

Elaine GastFor more than 15 years, Elaine Gast Fawcett and her team at PhilanthroComm have strengthened the philanthropy and nonprofit sectors by sharing the stories that connect us.

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