An Interview with The Greater Sum’s Founder, Todd Silverstein
by Anna Taylor, Executive Director
The Greater Sum is a newly formed private operating foundation with a mission of supporting innovation in the nonprofit sector. Founder Todd Silverstein brings a combination of entrepreneurial experience and philanthropic spirit to the new endeavor. I set up this East Coast/West Coast chat so that Todd could share how his background and interests inform this work, and how he plans to connect nonprofits with resources.
Anna: Thanks for agreeing to this interview! I know you share my excitement that we’re launching The Greater Sum this week. I wanted to take a minute to talk about how this idea came to you, and how it became The Greater Sum.
Todd: Well, my introduction to angel investing came while I was in business school at Willamette University. Students there have the opportunity to be embedded in angel investing groups; it was a great experience and stayed with me.
Years later, it's probably no surprise then that I'm a fan of ABC's TV show, Shark Tank. The show essentially utilizes an angel investment model - connecting entrepreneurs with angels who provide both funding and strategic connections.
Greater Sum was something of a natural pairing of my enthusiasm for this model and my desire to make a positive lasting impact. I had been thinking about different non-profit organizations I could start, and I kept running into the same problem; there are a LOT of worthwhile causes in the world, and I was having trouble choosing one to focus upon.
Anna: Greater Sum has really broad focus areas -- health, environment, education, and community building. That creates space for us to work with a wide range of non-profits.
Todd: Right. While watching Shark Tank one evening, a thought occurred to me. What if we took the angel investing model and applied it to non-profits? Rather than assemble a team to address one of the many unmet needs in the world, we could assemble a team to provide key support, guidance, and funding to innovative and motivated change-makers.
Anna: It sounds like the subject matter experts are a key piece of the support you want to provide. What qualities do you look for in a Subject Matter Expert (SME), and what are you hoping they’ll bring to their work with nonprofit partners?
Todd: The two primary qualities I look for are the ability to think critically and a passion to use their knowledge, their skills and abilities, to effect positive change. In other words, I look for both capability and motivation.
It's my hope that not only will our SMEs advise and mentor on technical matters, but that they will help increase the overall capability of our partners to effect positive change.
I spoke to a number of my friends and mentors, and they agreed to take part. Many are now enthusiastic volunteer Subject Matter Experts (SMEs). As we bring on new nonprofit partners we’ll expand our call for experts to meet their specific needs. And we've been very lucky with our choice of Executive Director. You’ve played a pivotal role in moving this from idea to reality.
Anna: Well, thanks! After almost 20 years in the nonprofit sector, this chance to help support other nonprofits is kind of a dream come true. I have definitely had times where asking a friend or mentor with IT or finance or marketing expertise made all the difference in the success of my projects. Don’t you agree that making those connections for nonprofit entrepreneurs in addition to providing funding will really boost their ability to implement?
Todd: That’s the plan! We know that nonprofits need funding, but we also want to provide mentorship, advice, and introductions to strategic contacts.
Anna: How will working with nonprofits be different from angel investing in the business sector?
Todd: The primary differences I see in nonprofits concern transparency, collaboration, and self-sufficiency. Nonprofits serve the public, and as such their financial workings are open for all to see via their annual 990 filings. That transparency extends to demonstrating their approach and their effectiveness to potential donors, opening the doors to show how they function as well as what impact they have.
In some sense, nonprofits compete for funder dollars, but they’re still able to connect with each other around shared mission and collective impact in a way that you don’t often see in the for-profit sector. There’s a natural opportunity for information sharing and collaboration. Nonprofit self-sufficiency revolves around not just revenue but fundraising, collaboration, and volunteer efforts.
Anna: Transparency seems to be crucial to your model of using the angel investing model with nonprofits. You're hoping to really get a sense of how potential Greater Sum recipients operate, right? What factors will you be looking for in grant applications?
Todd: We need to understand the ins and outs of an organization and the environment where they operate to be able to provide meaningful assistance. Also, to gauge their potential. That's why our SMEs play such an important role in our assessment process as well as in assisting change-makers.
If you read the grant application on the Greater Sum website, you’ll see that we’re considering not just the idea being proposed, but also the strength of the organization, the composition of the leadership team, and the capacity of that idea to change how work is done.
Anna: One more question. Who’s the ideal candidate for Greater Sum support?
Todd: I’m excited by solutions which show the potential for significant impact, are low-cost to create and easy to deploy, are scalable, and are easily adopted; it's also important that they aren't a flash in the pan, but rather provide lasting, meaningful change.