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You’ve got three minutes to sell your idea to save the world

Brad Zumwalt, co-founder of Social Venture Partners Calgary, sold his previous company EyeWire before launching into social entrepreneurialism.

Jeff McIntosh/The Globe and Mail

The charities will get three minutes each to make their pitches in a head-to-head competition. At stake: thousands of dollars in prizes.

Fast Pitch is a new initiative from Social Venture Partners Calgary, a non-profit set up more than a decade ago by Brad Zumwalt. He is a wildy successful entrepreneur who has taken a venture capitalist's approach to helping other charities in the city. He describes Fast Pitch as a charitable version of the CBC program Dragon's Den.

For weeks, 23 competitors have been working with coaches from the private sector on distilling the essence of their stories into compelling 180-second presentations. Twelve of them have made the final, which Dianne Buckner, the host of Dragon's Den, will co-host on Nov. 5. In the CBC show, entrepreneurs compete for seed money. In Fast Pitch, judges will award $25,000 in prizes, including cash, but also the services of professional fundraisers or management consultants. The event will be held at a local theatre and there will be cocktails and live music.

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The idea is to broaden SVP Calgary's's reach beyond the handful of charities it focuses on helping every year. "It is a way to innovate and do new things," Mr. Zumwalt says.

His career as a social entrepreneur began in 2000, after he sold his company, EyeWire Inc., for $37-million to Getty Images.

Through his business dealings, he had come to know Paul Brainerd, who had founded the original Social Venture Partners in Seattle, and Paul Shoemaker, the organization's first director.

Mr. Zumwalt was inspired by their vision. The SVP model involves attracting partners who are willing to make a substantial annual donation. As a group, the partners decide which charities they want to help. They also offer time and their skills to build the capacity of these non-profits. The goal is to build stronger non-profit organizations that can achieve their goals.

He and his wife,Tanya, dove in. They spent $250,000 to set up the Calgary SVP and found 30 partners who agreed to invest at least $5,000 each every year.

"It was a crazy thing. It was a bit impetuous. But I had a one-year, non-compete agreement where I couldn't be involved in my own industry," Mr. Zumwalt says.

His involvement has stretched far beyond that first year.

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"When you get in and do this work you realize the time horizons are so long. ... But it has been a very interesting journey."

In its first decade, SVP Calgary injected $1.7-million into 15 organizations, and offered help on accounting, computers, governance, human resources and accessing resources.

Usually, one or two SVP partners take the lead with each non-profit and connect them with other partners who can help.

"It is not just the money. Partners bring their individual professional skills to these charities, so they feel like they make a unique contribution," Mr. Zumwalt says. "The executive directors of these organizations feel like they are being supported with not only money, but that people are giving these individual gifts to move the mission along."

He is passionate about the need for charities to spend money on good administration, bucking a trend in which many donors push to see as few resources as possible go into the running of non-profit organizations.

"We analyze them and say, 'Wait a minute, how much are you spending on administration? I want to see that number as low as possible.' That doesn't make sense to me. These are vitally important organizations and they need to spend money training people, running computer systems, keeping their books up to date."

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Civil society is increasingly taking on roles that governments once did, he says.

SVP Calgary's current investees include the Autism Aspergers Friendship Society of Calgary and The Alex, a community health centre that provides care and support to Calgary's low-income, homeless and immigrant populations.

One of the challenges is creating a trusting relationship that allows charities to be open about potential weaknesses and where they most need help.

SVP Calgary has a grant committee that reviews proposals from non-profits and the selection process is rigorous.

"There are site visits. We are not looking for the safest bet. They have a willingness and an openness to bringing in help, and the potential to build this two-way relationship."

There are now SVP organizations in 29 cities, including Vancouver, Toronto and Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont. Mr. Zumwalt has also been involved with Social Venture Partners International, the global network.

"He is almost iconic, for us," says Shoemaker, who heads the international organization. "He is the real deal. ... He is not one bit afraid of risk, yet he doesn't know how to fail."

Mr. Zumwalt, 46, and his wife have four children, who are also involved in the charity.

"It is a really useful part of this, for families to have this awareness that not only have mom and dad made this small donation, but we are getting together behind this money and working together on it."

He still active in the business world. He was an early investor in the Renewal2 Social Investment Fund, which raised $18-million through the worst of the recession and puts money into companies that make organic food, green consumer products and green building products.

"When you say social entrepreneur, there are two halves to it. One side involves tax-receipted dollars. But the other side is socially-conscious businesses and blended businesses," he says.

Paul Richardson, the president of the fund, says Mr. Zumwalt's early commitment was crucial to the success of the fund. He has also become a co-investor in some of the companies Renewal2 has a stake in, including one in Pennsylvania that makes organic skin-care products.

"Brad is someone, who, if he believes that the people he is working with are doing the right things, for the right reasons, in the right way, is the best partner you could possibly have. He brings a level of generosity and intelligence to his approach that few investors match."

For Mr. Zumwalt, it is important, and inspiring, to be involved in both the non-profit and for-profit worlds. "There are huge impacts to be had in both realms."

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About the Author

Anne McIlroy has been a journalist for more than 25 years. She joined the Globe in 1996, and has been the science reporter as well as the parliamentary bureau chief. She studied journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa. More


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