Sponsor Spotlight: Social Good Fund
In our latest Sponsor Spotlight, we’re talking with Michael Pace, founder and CEO of Social Good Fund, a fiscal sponsor based in Oakland, CA.
During our discussion, we touched on a number of areas including what it was like to start and grow a fiscal sponsor from scratch, where the idea came from, the organization’s core values and how the team views using technology to speed things up.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Schulman Consulting: So let’s talk about how we got here.
Michael Pace: Well, honestly Social Good did not start out as a fiscal sponsorship idea in the very beginning. That was actually back in 2011. I was participating in an Oakland-based nonprofit, and there were a couple other people in that program who I’d reached out to, to think about ways we can give back to the community, and we were kicking around a bunch of different ideas.
One of the ideas came about from my experience a long time ago with fiscal sponsorship. I was living in Washington D.C. at the time, and one of my colleagues and I wanted to start a non-profit.
Model A and C
Local, regional, national, international
Community improvement in all of its many forms
Active Projects: 375
We were working together in Americrops, and after the program had ended, we came back out to California, and were looking at fiscal sponsors to help us kick start our idea.
I approached a few different fiscal sponsors, or at least went through the application process, but we ran into barriers. It was just a rather frustrating process. That always stuck with me. So years later, when I was working with this other non-profit in Oakland, and a couple of new colleagues and myself were talking about ideas of what we could do, I brought up the idea of doing fiscal sponsorship and doing it in a way that was more accessible to people so that they wouldn’t have the same delays and frustrations that I encountered many years ago when I was applying for fiscal sponsorship. We incorporated shortly after that point (in 2012).
Our original idea wasn’t really to do fiscal sponsorship. It was maybe just to do a variety of different projects that the community needed, but that sort of lent itself well to the idea of fiscal sponsorship because that’s what fiscal sponsors do — they nurture and support a variety of projects. It was just sort of a happy marriage of ideas actually.
SC: It’s a classic entrepreneurial story, you take a problem you’ve experienced on your own and use it to figure out how to do something a little better or differently.
It seems like one of Social Good’s key differentiators is the ability to quickly review applications and be really customer service focused. To take on people with all different kinds of projects from all different places and all different sizes and you’re not worried about having lots of experience coming in or lots of money coming in right at the beginning or those kinds of things. Would you say that’s accurate?
MP: Yeah, that’s right. All shapes and sizes, all levels of experience — definitely. We just want to help good things prosper, and that’s really the goal.
SC: Got it. So just a few little nuts and bolts questions. I believe you guys offer both essentially model A and model C for versions of them?
SC: And you’re not focused on any geography, or any specific type of service or work? Do you guys have any restrictions or any sort of things where you don’t want?
MP: Here’s really the core value that we support. I would say the idea is to promote good works in communities, but it’s a little deeper than that. What I was trying to do when we started this was to empower each person to bring their personal vision into reality. Just to give them that opportunity. I felt like it’s not that I was denied that opportunity when I was looking at fiscal sponsorship, but it was just difficult and it didn’t have to be.
Honestly, the world needs a lot of good to take place, so why not make that easier, rather than throw up barriers. In terms of belief, it’s that if you’re able to take your own vision, make it a reality, not only does that increase your personal investment in your own community, but also people around you will see what you are doing, and that action and perception of those actions generates just a broader (community wide) positive influence. That’s really beneficial for the greater good. That’s sort of the fundamental idea.
But I will say, there are some restrictions. That is, you have to have a coherent idea. You have to have a vision for what you’re going to accomplish and how; and the vast majority of people do. Sometimes people don’t, and we say go back and think about it, and when you’re ready, when you have a plan, then you can come back to us and we’ll help you. You at least need that in place–and of course, everything you’re doing needs to fall within the IRS guidelines for charitable activities.
SC: So how is it, getting started, it’s not often I talk to somebody who’s started a fiscal sponsor. How was it in the beginning? Where were the projects coming from? How are you getting the word out?
MP: Well, that’s a good question. I honestly really didn’t expect things to take off like they did. I had another job. I thought, “Okay, we’ll take on a few projects a year and just slowly grow over the next several years, and maybe eventually five years down the line I might be able to do this full time.” I was really caught off guard by the demand. That was very surprising.
How people found us was mostly through online advertising, and then word of mouth started to take place. Once we had that first handful of projects, some of them were keyed into the local communities and they started to let their friends know about us and other friends who had sponsors but maybe they weren’t quite happy. They encouraged them to come over, they did. We work really hard to be a flexible, offer transparent service, and cater to the needs of our projects. Rather than asking them to conform to our needs, we work to conform to theirs as best we can. That works with a lot of people.
I think now it’s a lot of word of mouth. We had to stop advertising because the applications and demand was actually too much, so we had to put on the brakes, and it still comes. I think people sort of see the spirit in what we’re doing. We work really hard to provide personal and supportive service, and I think we do a good job of that.
SC: That’s great. How many projects are you up to?
MP: On paper we have about 700 projects. But the whole, we’ve got just over 375 truly active projects. And then we have also projects that are mostly dormant, or folks that might come in and out from time to time.
SC: Are those mostly model A, you would say?
MP: Yes. It’s probably about 80% (Model A), 20% (Model C) at this point.
SC: Okay. I seem to remember you all being a pretty lean organization, so how have you built a team to service all of these projects?
MP: For a long time it was just myself working really hard, and then I brought on a bookkeeper. That was maybe after a year and a half of mostly just me. I was probably personally working close to 200 projects at that time. That was clearly not sustainable for me.
SC: I can imagine.
MP: But it was working. So then I brought on a bookkeeper and we started to add staff. Now we just added another two people, so we’re up to nine people with us now. We had to scale. Everybody is really into it, so it’s a lot easier to work hard and provide good service when this is something you genuinely care about and that natural connection is just there. I think that’s one of the things that really makes this organization thrive. Everybody just has that heart and they’re pretty deeply connected to the work we do. We rely on technology to make things efficient, and then people’s hearts. It’s the technology plus our desire to really do this work that makes everything work well together.
Good people doing good work is an awesome achievement.
SC: With a small team like that, you can’t have any weak links in a team of that size. I’m curious, some sponsors have set it up where there are a few people who are the main project contacts and then there are other staff members who are focused on other things but they’re not really in touch with the projects. Is that what you guys do?
MP: Yeah, that’s not our model. We considered that for a while. The reason we probably haven’t done that is it just creates bottlenecks in communications. Because you’re only dealing with one person, it takes that person time to get the information they need from other people. There might be some approval process, as well, and it adds layers of bureaucracy that slows things down. We may have to move to that at some point, but right now you just go the person that has the the information you need.
SC: Got it. Tell me about if there are a couple of projects that you want to highlight. I’m sure you want to highlight all of them but I don’t know if we have the time for that.
MP: It’s endlessly fascinating with all the great things that projects are doing. How can you pick just one or two? I’ll say one that is very interesting to me but they all really are great. One of the first projects we had was this guy…he called up and he was like, “I ran a fundraiser when I was in college and we managed to raise $5,000. I want to do another fundraiser to build clean drinking water wells for people.” I was just like, “Okay, great. That’s a good project.”
So anyway, he thought he might raise $10,000 in this fundraiser, and the goal was to build wells for clean drinking water in Yemen at the time. That was actually just following its crisis. Given that situation, we’re thinking, “Well, I don’t know about sending money over there right now with everything that’s going on.” I just didn’t feel very secure that that was a safe thing to do.
We talked to him, and he says, “Okay, I understand Maybe we can build wells in some other places and we can continue to do the work.” He ended up becoming one of our largest projects, raising $1.5 million to date over the past few years.
What he thought was just going to be a $10,000 project that first year, turned into something much more. I think he ended up making a couple hundred thousand dollars, and then over time he’s close to being a million-dollar-a-year project. It’s actually amazing because he’s one of the few projects where most of that money comes from individuals. None of it comes from grants. He builds drinking wells in the Middle East and Africa, supports an orphanage, and is looking to expand his work in general. It’s been a really exciting thing to see. The name of the organization is Zamzam Water.
SC: What a story.
MP: Another one is a group called Thrival World Academies. They’ve done a lot as well. Right now they work with kids in schools in Oakland and also some schools in Indiana. They do a semester abroad with classes. I think they first went into Thailand, I believe. But they take kids that normally wouldn’t have access to these types of opportunities, get them out of their environment, do education elsewhere in the world, and it just really opens them up as a human-being and exposes them to a lot of different circumstances in life that they wouldn’t otherwise encounter.
Personally, I really like traveling. I really appreciate being able to experience other cultures, and to be able to offer that to students, especially students in communities that generally won’t have those opportunities at that age, maybe indefinitely…It’s great to see. They’ve grown a lot as well. Those types of programs are personally really interesting to me. But again, generally, almost every project we bring in is really interesting, so it’s endlessly fascinating.
SC: Yeah, you get to see everyone has their own thing that they’re looking to do but they’re all probably so different, the range of things that come to the door must be pretty extensive.
MP: It is. That’s the thing. One of the things that has frustrated me traditionally is non-profits would say, “Well, this work is already done, so why are you also doing this work?” I totally get it, why duplicate things? But the thing is, you’re not. You’re bringing your own unique spin to it, and just that incremental difference in your personality or the culture you’re creating in that organization might be enough to have an impact in away that other organizations or those organizations that are doing similar work, are not having.
The culture might not be one that is quite sufficient to meet the demands in a particular way, so just the little, subtle differences are deeply important.
SC: Definitely. We talked a little bit before about technology, and obviously you’re up in the Bay Area. There’s a lot that going around in your everyday life. It’s also something that I think is not at the forefront for a lot of nonprofits and even a lot of fiscal sponsors, but you guys seemed to latch on pretty quickly and make it a really important part of how you do your work. Is that just a product of where you are, and you’re probably a little bit younger than a lot of people who are leading fiscal sponsors these days. Are there any other factors that you said, “This is how we need to do it?”
MP: Yeah. I’m not sure what the average age is. I’m 42 now, so I don’t feel that young anymore. I’m certainly not too much older, but there are younger folks who definitely are heavily immersed in technology in their everyday life, and that’s not me, but I do appreciate technology. I do use it a lot, and I clearly recognize that if you’re going to survive for much longer, you have to be able to use it effectively. And already just at that last (NNFS) conference, there are new sponsors coming online that are completely technology-based, and that honestly is where we will end up, so that’s one of our challenges.
What we’re doing right now is we’re looking at building to survive this continuously changing landscape. We’re at a point where it’s like, “Okay, well, we might need to build our own technology platform that does absolutely everything we need it to do,” and that’s one of the things I’ll be looking at this year is how to do that.
So, we just see it as essential. Especially as younger folks are starting their own projects are demanding it. They need it, and expect it. To them, that’s just normal. There’s no question about it. You have to be able to offer it.
SC: Speaking of what projects are demanding these days, every sponsor has their own approach, but a lot of sponsors offer professional development, whether it’s helping project teams understand fundraising, grant writing or budgeting or all those kinds of things. Do you guys do any of that kind of programming?
MP: Last year we started a coaching service, so we will offer coaching to projects that really want a more hands-on approach to fostering their development. We also hired a project concierge and liaison. Her job is to build connections between our projects and build resource and knowledge pools for our projects to engage in. We’re really going to be more heavily focused on that experience. So knowledge sharing, resource sharing, creating those networks and connections between our projects will play an important role as we continue to grow and develop.
SC: That’s great. What have you seen or what do you think are some of the biggest challenges you guys have had?
MP: Well, for us, I think meeting the demand in growth has been a challenging process. A good one, and I think we’ve met the challenge reasonably well. Also, it’s trying to stay on top of regulations, not violating IRS guidelines. We want to stay safe and keep our projects safe.
Then, being able to find the tools that will allow them to thrive, is another one–so technology again. How can we give our projects information faster, better, more easily? How can we give them more control and empower them to do the things they want to do? How can we get out of the way, let that happen, but still have oversight and effectively manage the process?
Those have been our challenges, and then I would say, again, some of the newer organizations that are more technology focused, entirely technology focused, are going to be disruptors to traditional fiscal sponsors. It could be very disrupting if somebody comes along, has a completely new way of doing something, entirely seamless in every way. That could end up sucking the air out of the room in a lot of ways, so that I see as a challenge. And how do we begin to evolve and grow as an organization over these next few years safely, while ensconcing ourselves in our field? There are a number of things that we’re working on. Hopefully, if we can continue to grow and we have some of the financial resources we need to build out new services, we’ll certainly do that.
Hopefully we can keep on this path, but those are the challenges that I see at this point.
SC: Got it. Are there any other important things about Social Good Fund or other related things that you want to mention?
MP: Just who we are at the core of our work. Our vision is just to have a world where people are shining. We want people to shine all over — inside and out. That’s our hope and our wish. You can get into a whole philosophical debate about people’s strengths and weaknesses and all the different facets of that, but in the end, it’s really about cultivating individuals in communities that can shine and do really great things for themselves and for others, and to be able to create that space, and hold that space so that we can all grow and thrive together–and that’s who we are.
That’s what we’re about. That’s what we genuinely want to see. If anybody wants to know about us, they should know that. And that’s what we try and create through fiscal sponsorship.
Do you have any questions about SGF’s approach or process for launching and managing their fiscal sponsorship program? Do you know of a sponsor that we should feature? Please let us know in the comments below.