The Fast Pitch program helps socially beneficial businesses and nonprofits grow and expand.
It’s refreshing to know a whole lot of people are using their ingenuity to make life better for others.
For instance, a group of University of Washington engineering and business students created a company, JikoPower, to bring electricity, cheaply, to people who live in impoverished areas of the world.
There’s also Suzanne Gwynn, a Seattle nurse who created Ladybug House to provide palliative care for children who have only a short time to live.
They and scores of other individuals and groups get help improving and spreading the good things they create. They get coaching, mentoring and sometimes money from the Social Venture Partners Fast Pitch program. And that program runs on the energy of volunteers for whom giving is an integral part of living.
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This year, about 175 people, from high-school students to business and nonprofit executives, volunteered. I want to tell you how it got started and how it works. I think it’ll give you something to feel good about today.
Fast Pitch is 5 years old, but Social Venture Partners (SVP) has been around for a while. The idea behind it is to make philanthropy about more than writing checks. It helps partners become more effective philanthropists, connecting them to nonprofits that are a good fit for their interests and skills, so that they can help those nonprofits do what they do better.
Will Poole, a member of SVP Seattle, attended an international conference in Los Angeles where the local group ran a competition modeled on “American Idol.” People pitched their nonprofit ideas on stage, and SVP partners voted. The best ideas got mentoring and funding.
Poole, a former Microsoft executive, brought the idea back here and expanded it.
Seattle doesn’t limit the program to nonprofits, and it includes high-school and college students.
Some things can’t be done as a business, he said, like running a hospice that accepts people regardless of their ability to pay. But a business that makes money while doing something beneficial for the community is worth nurturing.
And Poole said he’s been impressed by the quality of young people’s entrepreneurship. “Could I have done that in high school or college? Not a chance.”
Maureen O’Hara, another former Microsoft exec, was in charge of running the program this year and told me that a lot of work with innovators happens in the weeks before the final competition.
This year there were 91 applicants. They get feedback on their proposals from executives who volunteer with the program. The program looks for businesses that are already up and running, but that it can help grow and improve. And innovators’ work must meet an unfilled need in a community.
The UW students I mentioned saw that there are places where cellphones are vital to communication but that charging them is a problem. People in those places often cook over open fires. So the students created a device that gathers heat energy from the fire and turns it into electricity that can charge a cellphone or power a light.
Fifty-six applicants made it past the initial screening, then the number was cut to 29 semifinalists and finally 14 finalists, who pitched their ideas in a big event at Seattle’s McCaw Hall last week, where winners in several categories were chosen.
JikoPower took second place in the university category and won the “Grayling Master Storyteller Award.”
Businesses get investment money, nonprofits get grants if they win (more than $400,000 this year), but what all the innovators get, whether they win or not, is coaching, connections and workshops to help them keep getting better.
Poole was backstage at last week’s final competition, giving pep talks to nervous presenters. He asked one woman if she was ready to go out there, and she said she was fine. She said that because of all the help she’d gotten, “I’ve already won.”
This teaming of innovators, mentors and funders for the benefit of communities, makes everyone a winner.