When Bruce Dewar started LIFT Philanthropy Partners several years ago, he knew he had a long road ahead. Dewar set out to change how groups and individuals create social movements and support one another. He wanted to improve communities across Canada. And he wanted to do it differently.
LIFT Philanthropy Partners evolved from 2010 Legacies Now, a nonprofit that helped Vancouver leverage the Olympic Games. The connections Dewar made with that organization opened his eyes to the potential for what he calls “venture philanthropy,” a process that applies best practices from business to nonprofit endeavours. And although the idea has caught fire elsewhere, it’s still a relatively new idea in Canada.
5 Questions with Bruce Dewar
What does innovation mean to your organization?
Innovation is finding a solution that delivers a real, positive result. It could be something simple in a process or in the way you engage your population, but it’s a breakthrough that brings a better result.
Is there a technology, trend, or idea that’s driving your organization forward?
We’re always looking at where we can use technology to make us more efficient and effective in our work as we grow nationally. That lets us help more people cross-country, and as we do, things have to be consistent and seamless. SPOs find it hard to adopt and use tech because of the costs, but we’re certain it can help them scale their impact.
How do you innovate on a day-to-day basis?
Through continuous improvement. When we add new people, we know they have fresh eyes and different skills, so we encourage them to use these things to constructively challenge how we operate. We’re open to new thinking that might lead to a better way forward.
Where do you hope this innovation will lead you in the next five years?
We keep getting better and better at how we do our work, and as we move down this line, we’ll look at opportunities like impact investing to ensure we are continuously improving and providing more value to the SPOs we work with and the social sector overall.
How can a company encourage innovation without breaking the bank?
You have to promote collaboration and find like-minded organizations that are willing to share. That might mean investing to create something together, or it might take a different shape, but we need to realize that we can’t do everything on our own, and we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. It’s okay to start and grow into things. Start first and then move forward.
By leveraging concepts from the business world, LIFT supports, empowers, and equips partner “social purpose organizations” (SPOs), making them more “sustainable and effective at delivering measurable social impact,” Dewar says. The group attracts financial investments and uses its staff and pro-bono advisors to take its SPOs to new heights, deepening each group’s community impact.
Dewar has spent the last three years amassing early successes to prove his model as LIFT moves beyond its Vancouver home. Now the organization is continuing to expand nationwide. “We’ve been forming solid partnerships beyond those with our SPOs and working with government agencies and others to find innovative solutions to national challenges,” he says. LIFT is addressing health, skills development, education, and employment. Its current partnerships support Women Building Futures (WBF), the Aboriginal Human Resource Council, JUMP Math, Furniture Bank, KidSport Canada, and the Take a Hike Youth at Risk Foundation.
Measurable results are key, and Dewar says LIFT is making a difference. “Women Building Futures provides trades training to disadvantaged women, and we’ve already seen women in the program increase their salaries by up to $35,000 a year,” he says. LIFT’s investment in WBF was instrumental in building confidence among other donors, enabling the organization to procure $3.6 million in new funding to expand its program. JUMP Math, which teaches math skills to children, increased its impact by 35 percent in 2014, after LIFT and its partner NATIONAL Public Relations helped build awareness of the charity’s work. “We are making good organizations great investments, and investors know their dollars will go farther to make a bigger impact,” Dewar says.
From the start, Dewar and his LIFT colleagues have been very selective regarding partner SPOs. But since Eastern Canada holds most of the country’s population, they’ve long had an eye on national expansion. On the heels of several early wins—and one in Toronto—Dewar says the time is right to continue the national push. Today, the group is sourcing more projects in Ontario and has four staff members in Toronto.
As it grows, LIFT is using what it has learned to make the organization and its partnerships much stronger. “SPOs don’t just want money—they want strategic advice and investment of time because that’s really what takes them to the next level,” Dewar explains, adding that LIFT is rolling out a new marketing and fund-raising campaign to bring more awareness to venture philanthropy and social issues.
Dewar has lofty goals for the expansion; he wants LIFT to engage 30 new SPOs in the next three years. He and his team are hard at work—looking to identify smart organizations that deal with vulnerable and at-risk populations. Dewar and his team believe resources and connections from LIFT can help those organizations make a bigger impact on the communities they serve.
“We have to do philanthropy in a new way because what we’ve been doing hasn’t moved the needle enough,” Dewar says. “Canada needs new ways to get better results, and LIFT can help us get there.”