In February 2019, Sudha Nandagopal joined Social Venture Partners International (SVPI) as its CEO, bringing her deep expertise in systems change, power-building, racial equity, and social justice to the 20-year-old organization. She recently spoke with Giving Compass about power dynamics, venture philanthropy, and SVPI’s role in a changing world.
Before joining SVPI, you led the City of Seattle’s Equity and Environment Initiative. Can you discuss the impetus for this initiative and the progress you made?
When I helped co-create that initiative, the idea was to center the leadership of those who are most affected by the issues and share power to figure out what we needed to do on environmental issues.
We used a very collaborative process with sixteen community leaders — all people of color. They were all deeply connected to networks of communities of color in Seattle and environmental justice issues in Seattle and the region. Together we created the Equity and Environment Agenda which became the road map for the work in Seattle and a national model for environmental justice. That was a huge win.
At the core, the Initiative was about saying, “If you have the lived experience, if you’re someone who is embedded in your community, we know you have expertise. We know you have solutions and given the opportunity to work in partnership with your colleagues, government, foundations, and other experts – we can bring those solutions to life.” It takes a whole ecosystem to make that change.
What lessons from that experience can you use in your new role as CEO of SVPI?
Across all of my work, I have found that we have to talk about power. You have to look at issues through a systemic lens and through a power lens. Who has historic power? Who has societal power? Who has financial power? How are we building power for those who are on the front lines and are the most impacted by issues of injustice? Being able to translate that power analysis is hugely important piece. SVPI has this enormous network. It’s really important for us to think about where we are positioned in the system and our power in that system to make change.
Networks matter. How do you catalyze the nodes of a network to experiment and innovate? Sometimes I would find — with the Equity & Environment Initiative sitting in government as a hub for community — we couldn’t do some of the work that needed to happen, but as projects emerged in community, we could amplify them. Being tapped into that network is critically important.
Knowing that networks are where we can create this kind of innovation and learning is one of the things that brought me to SVPI. We have a lot of potential when you see that we’re connected to so many different parts of the social change ecosystem: Our investees, affiliate organizations, foundations, individual partners, and so many other community entities. Figuring out how can we be a convener and support a learning culture and commitment to experimentation and systems change is a big lesson I’m carrying forward into this work.
What role can venture philanthropy play in shifting power dynamics?
Right now, we’re in a time when income inequality globally and racial injustices in the U.S. have created hugely challenging power dynamics. When I think about venture philanthropy, I think about philanthropy that is risk-taking, innovative, and adapting in changing times to address big problems.
What if venture philanthropy now was also about addressing the increasing complexity in our world through systems change and power sharing? How do we take the lead from our front-line communities and show up for the innovation that’s happening, often times at a scale that’s not necessarily where venture philanthropy has historically looked? How do we practice the change we need to see in the system – making sure that power is distributed, not just concentrated in the hands of those with wealth. As funders we have ideas, but we have to be careful not to confuse ideas with expertise and instead look to change power dynamics so we’re backing and supporting the risky systems change work, not just what gets us excited
What is your #1 priority at SVPI in the next six to 12 months?
We have an opportunity to be a stronger voice on power, equity, and systems change and to amplify and support more collaboration, innovation, and experimentation across our network. That’s really the core of what I’m trying to figure out in the first year: “Who is SVPI” and answering that question in a way that is inspirational, bold and necessary for our communities, for our world, and for the work we need to do. What does engaged, venture philanthropy, proximity, and capacity building mean now – how has that shifted from twenty years ago when this all got started?
On a practical note: What is the major problem we’re trying to solve, who is helping us set the agenda, and how are really thinking about our work in equity? What is the untapped power and potential of our global network and how do we put that power to use to strengthen our communities?
What do you see as Social Venture Partners “secret sauce?” What is the network’s greatest strength?
Being a global network is definitely our secret sauce. We have such a robust ecosystem – we have connections to so many social change entities within communities who are learning, experimenting, and building the field of engaged philanthropy. We also have the ability to create more connections to people of color, low wealth communities, and front-line communities so we can truly lean into and explore questions of equity.
Philanthropy has a huge role to play in shifting power back into our communities and networks like SVPI are a way for us to catalyze experiments and demonstration projects that create systems change at scale.
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