Get to Know: Les Silverman

June 25, 2018

VPP board member Les Silverman told us his story of the history of VPP and his work with the organization in its early years as a consultant with McKinsey & Company, VPP’s unique approach to philanthropy and what nonprofits need to be successful today.

How does your own story connect with Venture Philanthropy Partners’ mission?
I’ve lived in the District since I graduated from college in the late ‘60s. After working for several nonprofit research organizations, I went into the government in the energy world for three years at the tail end of the Carter administration. I joined McKinsey & Company in 1982.

I feel committed to this region. While it has made tremendous strides in many respects, there’s too large a core of young people in DC and in the region who don’t have the same advantages that many of us did growing up. As a citizen of the District, it has been rewarding for me to be part of an organization that is making such a difference in the lives of young people.

How did your experience working with private sector clients at McKinsey translate to helping nonprofits?
Most nonprofits are passionate about their mission, but rarely about the management of their own organizations. Even though my day job was focused on management of big energy companies, a lot of that management know-how could be focused on nonprofits as well.

What brought you to the VPP family?
I’ve been around VPP almost from the beginning.

It has been a tradition within McKinsey to serve our communities. Every office at McKinsey served local nonprofits but we hadn’t been serving the sector in a focused, deliberate way, as we did with sectors like energy, financial services and others. So, we fixed that. We launched the Nonprofit Practice in 2000 (now the Social Sector Office). Coincidentally, another organization was starting up at around that time in this area – what came to be called Venture Philanthropy Partners. Connected through mutual friends, I had a very significant breakfast with co-founder Mario Morino and discussed his vision for VPP. I didn’t just ask him about capital, because I knew he was already moving forward in that area. Instead, I asked, “How are you going to provide help with strategic management?” That conversation led to the relationship between McKinsey and VPP.

My colleague Lynn Taliento and I worked with Mario and his early staff to develop some of the procedures that VPP used. We worked on the strategic plan for VPP’s first investment (Heads Up) and for several other investments in that first portfolio. I feel that McKinsey – and I personally – had a terrific opportunity working with VPP in those days. I am very proud of the relationship that developed.

How did that fateful breakfast turn into a long-standing relationship between McKinsey and VPP?
What was so important to me was the fact that VPP was always about more than the money. Providing funding got us in the door with nonprofits, but what was unique was what happened once that door was open: VPP working closely with these organizations to improve their capacity. That happened along multiple dimensions, from being clear about their vision and goals; being thoughtful about how they were going to achieve those goals; looking for the right organizational structure and support from the board and other donors and supporters. Those were things that we at McKinsey knew something about and could bring to the nonprofit partners.

I retired from McKinsey in 2006 but I knew that I wanted to remain engaged with VPP and, after discussions with Mario and the Board, I was invited to join the Board. A few years later, I became Chair of the Investment Committee.

Over time, what you have you seen as remaining a steady part of VPP’s core and what’s changed or evolved?
What’s remained the same is the mission: The focus on young people in Greater Washington.

What’s changed over two decades is the way we’re trying to improve the lives of young people. In the first decade, the focus was on improving the capacity and resources of high-performing nonprofit organizations. We were helping kids by helping organizations that serve them. Through those organizations becoming more effective, the lives of young people were improved.

The success of youthCONNECT pointed the way for VPP having impact through networks of nonprofits. The needs of the young people VPP was trying to serve are way more complicated than any one nonprofit could handle. But VPP knew that if we got a group of nonprofits working together with the right incentive structure and linkages, we could potentially make a bigger difference in the lives of these young people.

That evolution from single organizations to networks of organizations was instrumental for VPP. Getting organizations to cooperate with each other and to work with the business community and public sector is among the hardest jobs in philanthropy. VPP demonstrated that we have as much ability to do that as anybody in the field. We still have lots to learn and lots to accomplish but we’ve demonstrated we know how to do it well.

How would you describe the kind of people who get involved with VPP?
They’re concerned about the region and its future, which quickly becomes concern about our young people. It’s somebody who has enough experience with these kinds of organizations – be they nonprofit or governmental or business – to realize how hard that work is. They appreciate the management of organizations trying to accomplish social change. It’s not just people with resources, but people who can appreciate what it takes to bring about change that will benefit young people.

Why should people work together with VPP rather than directly going to nonprofits?
Donors often believe that they can have more bang for their buck by going directly to the organization. That may bring “warm fuzzies” but it won’t do the hard work of defining, improving and insisting on performance as a condition for the resources. That’s the role we at VPP play, working in partnership with an organization or a network to define a strategy, or to determine the organizational capacity necessary to be successful with that strategy and then monitoring performance over time. We have a track record of bringing about change not just in people but in aspirations, strategies and systems.

What advice would you give to a nonprofit? What are the best practices you think every nonprofit should know?
Setting high aspirations and bringing clear-headed thinking about what it’s going to take to achieve those aspirations.

I admire leaders who manage to raise the bar just as their organizations are about to jump over it, but do so in a way that leaves people energized as opposed to discouraged. Clear-headed thinking sometimes comes from outsiders, whether they be board members who both challenge and support you, or outside consultants to take a fresh look at what you’re doing. You then need the willingness to do the hard work of day-to-day management, whether it’s making changes in the people or the processes.

What is VPP doing now that gets you most excited?
Our Ready for Work initiative Bringing a network of organizations into three high schools in Prince George’s County is very exciting. It’s a replication of youthCONNECT that adjusts for the fact that it is a different situation but draws on the common skill that we’ve developed of helping nonprofits to work together. What excites me is taking that model to other places in the region to solve problems facing young people. We’re going to do it in a way that tackles different age groups and somewhat different problems. But we’ll have in common the feature of getting nonprofits to work together – and to work with the business communities and public sector – to meet the challenges that are facing our young people today.

Is there anything else you think people should know?
This is really hard work! It takes a really talented staff to pull it off. The facilitation of management problem solving, coordination, cooperation with and among nonprofits – all of that can’t be pulled off by people who are anything less than very talented at what they do. I am very proud of VPP’s staff that is  helping nonprofit partners to work well not only with each other, but also with the government entities that are so important to large-scale interventions.