It was kind of like “American Idol,” without the singing and the snarky remarks.
After weeks of coaching and rehearsals, 10 contestants had three minutes each on stage to pitch their dreams to a panel of judges and an audience of 600 high-minded donors.
The contestants included a man who endured sexual abuse, promoting an app to reach out to male victims; a young filmmaker trying to raise money to equip struggling children to share their stories; a former investment banker who wants to create a 51-mile-long public park along the Los Angeles River.
It was a night of stark differences and complementary visions: a crowd of successful professionals hungry to give back to a collection of nervous do-gooders seeding hope on shoestring budgets.
They came together this month at the Fast Pitch competition at the California Science Center, sponsored by Social Venture Partners, a business version of traditional pooled-money “giving circles” that was created to nourish nonprofits.
More than $45,000 of prize money was at stake, with the audience allowed to vote by text and the judges — I was one — debating our picks in private.
The audience choice was a woman whose pitch began with the story of her young daughter’s death. She got $10,000 to expand Gabriella Charter School, created in honor of her daughter to teach dance to inner-city youngsters.
The judges’ grand prize winner, who walked away with $20,000, was Harry Grammer, a dreadlocked former juvenile delinquent whose 10-year-old group New Earth uses art, education and counseling to redeem incarcerated teens.
It didn’t hurt that Grammer brought along a product of his group’s success: a former gang member named Alex with a pastiche of tattoos decorating his neck.
Three years ago, Alex was locked down for carrying a gun; today his weapon is a pen. He’s a college student and budding musician, with an office job and a song for sale on iTunes.
When Alex took the mike and blurted out his thanks, to tears and applause, it was a window into a vision of our fractured but generous city that we don’t celebrate nearly often enough.
Until I was asked to be a judge, I had never heard of Fast Pitch or its sponsor Social Venture Partners.
The group began in Seattle 16 years ago, when the tech surge created a wave of newly minted millionaires who decided to tackle the city’s problems with the sort of venture capital funding that had helped give life to their start-ups.
They pooled their money and their expertise, offering support to fledgling nonprofits. The idea spread; there are now 34 chapters of Social Venture Partners around the world, with more than 2,700 members.
The Los Angeles chapter, with 85 members, has been around since 2004. Most partners contribute at least $5,000 a year to the charitable pool but young people who work in the nonprofit world can join with an annual pledge of $1,500.
The idea is not only to fund worthy projects, but to grow a pool of philanthropists willing to contribute more than money. The process acquaints them with issues in Los Angeles that privilege often tends to hide.
Most members are business professionals — entrepreneurs, lawyers, consultants, finance experts — who volunteer their time and skills to help nonprofit groups with marketing, budgeting, fundraising and strategic planning.
“They want to do more than write a check,” said SVP’s executive director Diane Helfrey. “They want to be part of these groups’ success. They feel a personal connection when they get involved.”
This year members volunteered more than 3,000 hours, and awarded $134,000 in grants and donations.
Many find the venture capital process more familiar and efficient than typical charitable giving. “I’ve seen nonprofit organizations who have a heart of gold, but are not very effective,” said Alina Sanchez, a marketing consultant whose clients include Microsoft and Sony.
“I think I have as many abilities to offer up as I do money.” She’s been coaching Fast Pitch contestants for the last two years.
The Fast Pitch process was born of frustration SVP members felt as they sorted through funding requests each year. “We realized so many people are doing good things but don’t tell their stories effectively,” Helfrey said.
The group picks 20 nonprofits each year and 40 volunteers spend two months teaching them to make a three-minute “elevator pitch” to woo prospective donors. Then 10 finalists present to the crowd.
The coaching is a grueling process, said contestant Katie Quintas, whose 2-year-old caregiving project, Here to Serve, made it to the finals but didn’t score a grant.
Her coach brought in an actress to help her polish her stage presence. Every two weeks, each contestant’s pitch was critiqued by all 40 coaches. “It breaks down your confidence,” Quintas admitted. “Then it builds you up. It forces you to focus on what’s special about what you do. You realize passion isn’t enough.”
Though she’s disappointed that she didn’t win, Quintas is grateful for the power of that night. She’s prepared to pitch her project anywhere, any time, and she’s made connections that are bound to pay off down the line.
Many good ideas just wither on the vine. But on that night — at the intersection of enlightened charity and grass-roots conviction — I saw possibilities brought to life.