Social Venture Partners: High-tech workers have new vision for giving

Three well-dressed officials from a Seattle charity flanked one side of a meeting-room table while the multimillionaire creator of Internet Explorer, Ben Slivka, sat on the other in shorts, running shoes and a short-sleeve shirt with surfers on it.

During the past few years, the upper-crust air of older charitable foundations has been pierced by an informal, hands-on and sometimes more aggressive version. The exemplar is Social Venture Partners Seattle, or SVP.

Founded in 1997 by a few wealthy technology workers, the group grew to 285 donors by 2000, shrinking slightly during the downturn.

But it has weathered the economic forces that sank many high-tech startups, even spawning imitators in 22 cities.

SVP merges charity with new-style entrepreneurial impulses, creating what director Paul Shoemaker calls "a giving circle on steroids."

Members pool money for selected causes, giving at least $5,500 a year for two years while volunteering time to provide hands-on business savvy.

The group attracted Slivka, whose unassuming appearance belies his wealth: He was lead creator of Microsoft's Web browser. At Seattle MESA, which promotes math and science education for minority and female students, he helped redesign the Web site, attended MESA events and talked monthly with the group's director.

While SVP remains a small, four-employee operation, it has caught the attention of the philanthropic world. "It's been stretching people's minds in a good way," said Putnam Barber, of The Evergreen State Society, a think tank for nonprofits. "The idea that the funder should roll up their sleeves and get dirty with the grantee is a genuinely provocative idea."

— Warren Cornwall