The Puget Sound Environmental Learning Center is the progeny of Paul and Debbie Brainard who founded the center with a $25 million check and a mutual passion to preserve the environment. Luckily for the Learning Center and many other similar non-profit organizations, there are more and more people like the Brainards who have the time and the money to make a difference.
Brainard earned his money in the PC revolution. As founder of Aldus Corporation, he gained a nice profit of about $120 million when he sold the company to Adobe Systems for over $500 million in 1994. "I started Aldus Corporation in 1984 -- myself and four engineers -- in a little studio apartment in downtown Seattle. The Apple Computer came out, the Macintosh, and the LaserWriter printer. We created a program called Pagemaker -- and it became an instant success -- to help people produce newsletters, and flyers, and newspapers, and magazines. And, as they say, the rest is history."
With $50 million from the sale, Brainard decided to begin a new career in philanthropy. "My passion is to really focus my energy on the environmental issues facing the region. We basically were looking for a house on Bainbridge Island, and found this wonderful property, 255 acres, and felt it would be a disaster if it got developed into housing. So my wife had the idea of combining our interests in children, education, and the environment, and building a children's center, where kids could come in to the outdoors and experience firsthand what it's like to be in nature."
With a pocket full of cash, and passion for the environment, he started the Brainard Foundation, which works on environmental concerns in the Pacific Northwest. He also helped to start a number of other non-profits, including the Environmental Center, which is a special place for learning. As described by Executive Director Thane Maynard, the center "... is a residential center, so we'll have lodges for three classrooms. Up to 96 kids total, with chaperones and parents who come along. And they'll come for a week at a time during school. And it's a chance to really immerse themselves, not only in the forest, and on the shore, and in the streams and pond, but also in the kinds of things that field biologists do."
Brainard is one of a new breed of philanthropists, born of a booming stock market and a red hot U.S. economy. At last count the U.S. was home to 7.2 million millionaires. It's not surprising that for the third consecutive year, 1999 charitable giving rose, to a record 190.16 billion dollars. Brainard explains, "It's not like the old generational wealth of the East Coast families that have been in the family for many years. These are people who are really approaching this for the first time."
As you might expect from new-economy pioneers, these fresh millionaires are blazing a new trail in the charitable-giving jungle by creating the venture philanthropist. "The venture capital model is something that I understood really well, because my company had venture capital investors. And a good venture capitalist is more than just money and serving on the board -- it's all about finding the right kinds of people to manage the company. So, in social venture capital, the idea is to do the same thing with non-profits. To sit down, look at what their needs are, and build a plan to take an organization from this level to this level."
With so many technology millionaires in Seattle, Brainard is not alone in his altruism. He formed Social Venture Partners to rally the forces and recruit volunteers like Fraser Black, a former Chief Financial Officer at Onyx Software Company. According to Black, "I initially got involved in SVP by going out and volunteering in one of the organizations that we fund -- and that was the youth tutoring program, where I go in and help kids learn how to read. ... So there's much more involvement."
Hands-on helping is Social Venture Partners' hallmark. Black went on, "And we're also looking for outcomes and metrics which show how an organization is changing over time like venture capital, you go out and you try to build a portfolio of companies and place your bets on those, and you inevitably have a few that are failures, but the really successful ones certainly make up for any of the mistakes you make along the way."
According to Brainard, "Social Venture Partners is really about people and the collective wisdom of bringing a smart group of people together that really care about their community, and the things that can take place as a result of that. It's a really interesting model, and it is about the collective whole being greater than the sum of the parts -- in terms of people's money, in terms of the wisdom, and the skill sets that are provided through the volunteer efforts -- that really add up to a tremendous resource for the community."