Full circle for SVP worldwide: where we are different


Paul Shoemaker

Paul Shoemaker

Paul Shoemaker

This is the second of two posts in which Paul Shoemaker of SVP Seattle reflects on a recent trip to new SVP groups in Asia, in Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing. Click here to read the first post.

And yet …

While the things we hold in common tend to be a little more visceral, philosophical, right-brained, our differences are a little more tangible, technical, left-brained. Some of the differences create a rich mosaic of creative, sometimes better, ways to approach social challenges.


In Japan, they are very bought into a collective, full group decision. Over 50 people spent a full day working through their grant decision making (and they weren’t done yet). There is no way that happens in the States.

Our last session in Tokyo was a half day at Entrepreneurial Training for Innovative Communities. Their founder, Haruo Miyagi launched his endeavour when he was in college. In a country that, by his words, has structures that can sometimes make entrepreneurship challenging, ETIC has launched hundreds of social entrepreneurs over the last 20 years.

Their NGO leaders had every bit as much passion, chutzpah and creativity; but it’s hard for these social entrepreneurs to succeed in a country whose ecosystem for social change is still developing. The ‘fuel’ to drive their ideas to fruition is not sufficient yet. The entrepreneurs are ahead of the philanthropists and social investors. This isn’t a put-down of Japan, I’m relating what was said many times in all three countries over two weeks. Another important reason for models like SVP is to help develop emerging social ecosystems for positive change.

South Korea

On the drive into Seoul from Incheon Airport, I asked one of their founding partners why he is in SVP and he said it ‘refreshes me’. Sixteen years ago, Paul Brainerd created SVP to engage a ‘new generation of givers’. Today, SVP Seoul is helping catalyse ‘the first generation of givers’. In their own words, they are building the ‘donation culture’ in their country.

Social Economy Center in Seoul

Social Economy Center in Seoul

We toured the new Social Economy Center, which felt a lot like our Seattle home. There is a vibrancy and sense of openness and the integration of the social and market economies is far ahead of what I’ve seen anywhere in the States.

We are exploring how to add impact investing to SVP Seattle’s toolkit. In Seoul, they’ve already made two investments in for-profits with a social purpose. One is http://www.letsplayplanet.com. The organizational form (for-profit vs non-profit) and the kind of capital given (grant vs equity vs working capital) was almost an afterthought. They’ve leapfrogged us, using whatever form of capital makes sense that will create the greatest impact.

The mayor of Seoul

The mayor of Seoul

SVP Seoul is also ahead on their relationships with community and public sector leadership. We met Mayor Park Won-soon. He has a wall full of post-it notes with dreams and complaints from citizens and two sets of bookcases askew to remind him of the inequalities in society. He believes social entrepreneurship and the work organizations like SVP are doing are the ‘main force to change the world’.


The first morning in China we trekked to the 4th ring in Beijing to Thousand Trees Equal Education Partners, founded by Gan Wang in 2001. She couldn’t find early education for her little boy, so she started her own school with three teachers and six kids that first year. Today, they are developing curriculum, and training teachers on and off line. She is working on true system change.

One is struck by the scale and scope of challenges in China. One of the first six kids in the school from 2001 was there during our visit. She’s in college now, and her mom is an SVP Beijing partner who is going to start their first Social Venture Kids group … life comes full circle.

The leadership team there has an expression: they plan to ‘go slow to go fast’. They realize they need to build really good infrastructure and partner connections, have a great first investee, etc before they accelerate their growth. The quality bar for what they launch seems to be a little higher in China, because they might not get as many chances.

This is still a great experiment, with awesome new colleagues around the world (including India, Australia and the UK), and the ultimate outcome is still very much to be written. Now is not the time just to keep doing what we’ve been doing; instead we must stay bold, unafraid of challenges, risks and failure.

In Asia, the sense of possibility and potential is astounding, especially in China. Our SVPs in Charlotte, Boston, Bangalore, Calgary, Austin, Los Angeles and 29 more cities helped make Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing possible … and in turn the rest of the world is giving each of us new ideas and connectedness and an even greater sense of possibility. I can’t wait to get back in the spring for the Asian Venture Philanthropy Network conference … full circle, again.

Paul Shoemaker is executive connector at Social Venture Partners Seattle.

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