Business leaders building social venture capacity - Activate World

Business leaders building social venture capacity

Tony Fleo, CEO, Social Venture Partners Dallas

Tony is a proven leader in the area of organizational development with twenty-five years of experience in helping communities, organizations, and individuals in leadership development, effective communication, and establishing mission within a company, community, or family environment. His training clients include several Fortune 500 companies.  Tony is a respected community leader able to build coalitions and has served as a lecturer, teacher, therapist, executive coach, and organizational consultant. He has presented workshops and keynote addresses at regional, national, and international conferences and workshops in the areas of leadership, organizational systems, community, and relationships. He earned his B.A. and M.A. in psychology from Duquesne University.

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Business Leaders Building Social Venture Capacity

When a business leader begins to look for opportunities to give back, options range from charitable organizations to social ventures. Organizations, like Social Venture Partners, exist to engage business leaders and leverage their expertise and passion to help build social good capacity in social enterprises and charitable organizations.

The CEO of Social Venture Partners Dallas, Tony Fleo, offers his insights and experiences on how to engage locally and make an impact. Participation in Social Venture Partners is as important for 20-somethings as it is for all generations.

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Business Leaders Building Social Venture Capacity

Tony Fleo, CEO, Social Venture Partners Dallas

Season 3, Episode 1

Jon Mertz:          00:02          Welcome to the Activate World Podcast, a series on how business leaders have more power to solve societal issues than any elected official. We explore business activism with substance and depth of thought. We are joined today by Tony Fleo, the CEO of Social Venture Partners Dallas. I’m really excited to get his insights on what he’s seeing unfold around different social issues and social enterprises.

Jon Mertz:          00:29          So Tony, welcome to Activate World. Give us a little of your background and tell us more about Social Venture Partners.

Tony Fleo:          00:34          Sure, happy to be here, good morning, Jon. I came to Social Venture Partners Dallas through a network of folks who were interested in building the capacity of organizations that are trying to solve the most difficult problems that people face. My background is in psychology, so I spent a lot of time listening to folks one on one and in group settings about the issues that they face, and then started to help them from an organizational perspective to build their organizations so that they could solve both internal problems that they were having amongst themselves in their own groups, in terms of staff or boards, or helping them to set strategy to make change in the world.

Tony Fleo:          01:24          Social Venture Partners here in Dallas is part of an international network. We are in over 40 cities in nine countries, and we represent men and women who are interested in giving their time, their talent, and their financial support to organizations from a business perspective to help these organizations understand what it takes to be successful, to be sustaining, and to make significant change. So we work with great organizations every day here locally, and our sister organizations work locally in their own cities and countries, and we work together as thought leaders and try to bring about some of these changes from best practices that we have discovered along the way.

Jon Mertz:          02:10         Give us a sense of how Social Venture Partners works, and what attracts business leaders to the organization.

Tony Fleo:          02:16          Sure. Men and women come to us individually and make a financial contribution to belong to the network, and it is that financial contribution that we use to deploy resources in the city. Those resources include some funding for either for-profit businesses doing good or for nonprofits that we believe are sustainable and replicable.

Tony Fleo:          02:38          Corporations come because they want their employees to be engaged in this work. They want their employees to have a broader sense of mission and purpose, and their employees are asking for that. So Social Venture Partners is able to provide that for individuals, as well as for employees.

Tony Fleo:          02:57          We also have created a program called Partner in Prosper here in Dallas, where companies can join with us at SVP and we manage their employees as groups on capacity building projects for local organizations. And again, our work is all from the business side of an organization.

Tony Fleo:          03:17          We believe that the people who are working on the particular missions are expert in their missions, and our folks are pretty much experts in some aspect of business, whether it be strategy, marketing, real estate. Whatever the organization needs to succeed, our partners have those expertise, and we deploy those on a pro bono consulting basis to those organizations so that we can strengthen their capacity to do their missions more effectively and to ramp up quicker than they would be without our support.

Jon Mertz:          03:46          So when you’re helping a company to develop programs that support the social good, what does that look like exactly?

Tony Fleo:          03:53          We act as the project manager, we assign employees to a particular project, maybe they work as groups of eight or 10, it provides a great cross-sector of employees from a company so that they internally get to know one another. And we project manage them in a sense that we curate the projects for the community, we offer to the company great projects for them to take a look at for their employees to get invested in. We keep the projects on a very strict timeline, high impact maybe four to six weeks, and we provide some Social Venture Partners who are expert in whatever the project is, whether it’s a marketing project or a strategy project, to mentor the team.

Tony Fleo:          04:34          And then we deliver both a project to the … We deliver results to the social impact organization, as well as back to the company so that they can see what their employees achieved. It’s really quite remarkable when people get to sue their talents, their professional work talents, that they’re giving to their companies every day, to an organization in the community that is doing great work as well.

Jon Mertz:          04:57          Yeah, it seems like there’d be some strong connections built between the company and the community.

Tony Fleo:          05:01          Oh my gosh, yes. It’s amazing the stories that we hear from employees who were working in the same area, did not even know these problems existed of course, they knew their company was doing great work financially and supporting organizations through money and through days of service. But once they got in there to really sink their teeth and their talents into a project, they really got to understand deeply the issues that people face, and they obviously bond with the organization, and then continue to support the organization as individuals or through their companies.

Tony Fleo:          05:31          So the organizations not only get a tremendous project from the business side, but they also ultimately get champions and supporters and members for their boards, and all kinds of different support persons that come to them individually as a result of what the company provided.

Jon Mertz:          05:48          You mentioned that there are a number of Social Venture Partners chapters around the United States and the world. Are there certain trends that you’re seeing in common among them?

Tony Fleo:          05:56          Well, the core DNA is always that we are around the world trying to help individuals get in closer proximity to the problems, and helping them to deploy their skills and their talents to solve those problems. Here in Dallas, of course, we have taken a leadership role around the impact investing space in that we are convinced that problems will never be solved by grants or philanthropy alone. Problems are very complicated, and there is a systemic approach to a created problem in the first place, and therefore there has to be a multi-pronged attack, if you will, on the systems that created these problems.

Tony Fleo:          06:42          We definitely believe that there is a role for philanthropy, but more importantly we believe that it is a much more powerful result when we bring networks together of business, government, education, and philanthropy to work on the same problem together.

Tony Fleo:          06:59          We understand clearly that it is very difficult to be real collaborators. It is very difficult to do collective impact work, not because people don’t understand the value of it, but because it is complicated and it is harder to work with partners than it is to go it alone. But the results can be so much more impactful and so much more significant when you are doing the painstaking work of building collaborations where you can work on a problem from many different angles. And business absolutely has a role to play in that. Oftentimes businesses can move much quicker than philanthropy can, and you can support the entrepreneurial spirit within the business world to provide some solutions that we have struggled with in the past.

Jon Mertz:          07:47          So impact investing is a term that seems to be popular these days. What are some principles or philosophies that make it really work?

Tony Fleo:          07:54          You know, there is a myth that we have held in our collective conscience for quite a long time that you can either do good or you can do business. There’s a great movement to say that you can combine them, and in fact you can not only combine them, but you can actually have businesses whose sole purpose is to do good. We look for those organizations that have a social impact.

Tony Fleo:          08:24         For instance, we have recently, our first investment was in a local organization here in Dallas called Skratch, it’s a gentleman who decided that it’s impossible for teenagers to get jobs anymore, and saw the value in having a job as a teenager and what our cultural changes have been that has made it so difficult for teens to learn those necessary skills that they get from those first-time jobs. He’s created an app that connects teenagers to jobs in their own zip code areas, and it’s just a remarkable thing. We believe that there is an intrinsic, very intrinsic, good in teaching the kinds of things that he is teaching, that his company isteaching, to teenagers through this app.

Tony Fleo:          09:05          So that’s just one tiny example of the many, many companies that are out there that are being created that have real intrinsic good built into what they are doing. They’re doing it, and they’re going to make money at it, and we want them to make money at it, and we want to get a return so that we can invest in more of these great startups that we believe can really help solve some of these issues that the world faces.

Jon Mertz:          09:29         You recently wrapped up your annual event bigBang, where you explored social enterprises and social innovation in the Dallas area.What did you take away from that event?

Tony Fleo:          09:38         We had Matthew Stewart with us, who is a historian and a philosopher, and talked about the kind of economic crisis that we are in, and what happens historically. Which is very sobering, that economies that leave large numbers of people behind are not economies that are sustainable over the long haul. So our whole bigBang in Dallas was looking at conferences called bigBang, and we were looking at what does it mean to have an economy where all people can have the chance for economic mobility. What all goes into that in a city? We have big corporations who are working on big studies around what makes a city sustainable, and what makes it resilient.

Tony Fleo:          10:24          Then we have philanthropy, who is also off in the corner dealing with how can we resolve these same issues. And what we have discovered is that it is so critically important that these organizations come together, that cities come together with philanthropy, with business, we’re all working on these same issues, and we continue to work on them in our silos.

Tony Fleo:          10:44          One of the things that is so striking to our audience is how many great people are connected to great institutions that are working on these problems, and yet we are not working them together. And we absolutely believe that working on these things together will get us further down the road.

Tony Fleo:          11:02          The time for conversation, the time for talk, the time for sitting around and trying to figure out what are we going to do is over. We have to act, and we are proud of the convening and the efforts and the steps that come out of these kinds of things when people get together and decide they’re going to act and work towards a certain solution. It’s pretty powerful.

Jon Mertz:          11:21          It sounds like bigBang is really eliminating boundaries between individuals and organizations and helping them to do more good together.

Tony Fleo:          11:28          That is exactly right.

Jon Mertz:          11:30          So, when a business leader comes to you and wants to pair with another organization you work with, how do you find a match?

Tony Fleo:          11:37          We do have a process around their areas of expertise. Mostly through their skills, their professional skills, we match them to particular projects that require those skills. But we also want to expose folks to a little bit of a different way of thinking.

Tony Fleo:          11:56          At Social Venture Partners, our mission is twofold. It is to grow the capacity of organizations from a business side, both for profit and nonprofit, whose mission is to have some positive effect on social issues. But we also want to provide educational opportunities to folks so that they can understand how they can grow their impact.

Tony Fleo:          12:19          I say this often, my grandmothers used to say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In many cases, that’s what we see in philanthropy every day, is that people have really good intentions, and that they think they are putting their money and their talents and their time into some things that are really going to make systemic change. And in reality they’re just not understanding the consequences of, when they do X, then Y is going to happen, and that may not be all that great.

Tony Fleo:          12:49          And so we provide a lot of educational opportunities around what actually moves the needle, what are the things that cause more problems, perhaps, than we intended, and how do we solve for those things so that the impact that we have in working on these social good issues can be as great as possible.

Tony Fleo:          13:12          What are you doing in order to really enhance the work and the mission? Or is it just to enhance what you think the notion of doing good in the community is? Those are the kinds of challenges, those are the kinds of things that we think through together. Those are the kinds of educational opportunities that we provide. What is the most impactful way for your employees to get engaged with the community? Let’s do those.

Jon Mertz:          13:36          Are you seeing a spike in business leaders wanting to get involved in Social Venture Partners Dallas, or in their community?

Tony Fleo:          13:42          Oh, absolutely, and I think there are a number of motivations for that. I don’t really care what the motivations are, I think the results are really important for the community. But you don’t have to look very far to see the research that says the companies that are engaged in their communities, their employees are more engaged with them. Companies that have signature outreach programs, their employees show a much higher rate of engagement and loyalty to that company. Even if the employee themselves does not participate in anything that is a part of that outreach program, they still have a higher loyalty and higher engagement to their company.

Tony Fleo:          14:23          So there is a tremendous amount of research that supports companies, from an economic standpoint, to get involved in philanthropic work, to get involved in social justice work, to get involved in their communities because the payoff for retaining employees is higher than for companies that do not do it at all.

Jon Mertz:          14:44          It seems like in the past business leaders typically waited until later in their career to get involved in community organizations and try to do good beyond just their business. I know you’re trying to change that, and you’ve launched a great program to get younger generations, in addition to older ones, involved. Can you talk a little bit about that program?

Tony Fleo:          15:02          What we have found … We bring in to speak to the group major business leaders and philanthropists and social agents, change agents, from the local community to address the students, the young professionals, and to help to mentor them.

Tony Fleo:          15:20          I am overwhelmed by their willingness to do that. These are folks who, trust me, could be anywhere in the world that they wanted to be, and they choose to get up on a Saturday morning and drive to some location a half hour or 45 minutes from where they live to share their thoughts and their expertise and just their learnings with this new generation of emerging leaders. That has really been very humbling for me, very exciting for me, and it just proves how willing people are to do good in the world. They just need a way in which to formalize it and to channel it.

Tony Fleo:          15:57          The transformation for the students … I had a conversation with a young man who went through the program last year, he and I visited recently, and he talked about his formal education, his college education, and how he had not heard any of these topics in all of his years of study in college. Some of these folks have MBAs, etc., and they have not really had one session on racism. They’ve had not one session on economic justice. They’ve not had any sessions on the housing policy, the laws that really shaped some of these horrible issues and supported some of these horrible issues that families and neighborhoods and cities face today. They had no basis of understanding where these problems came from originally.

Tony Fleo:          16:51         You have to wonder about that. These are the best and the brightest young professionals in Dallas, and they have no context for how we got here because they’ve never had anyone … This has never been an offering to them in their academic careers. They can go back to their companies and influence some of the things the companies are doing, and it just sets them on a path of being able to do things very differently with much more intention, much more deliberateness, and hopefully much more effectiveness.

Jon Mertz:          17:25          So, to wrap up, what’s your best advice for business leaders who want to get more involved in their community?

Tony Fleo:          17:30          That is a really good question, and many, many, many opportunities are available. Our business leaders, they have many demands that face them, and they have many challenges, and they have organizations and people that they are responsible for to deliver results. So, with their little bit of time that they have to dedicate to this, I ask them to consider that these are not fragmented parts of our lives anymore, that doing good in the world and making money can walk hand in hand. You don’t do them in isolation from one another.

Tony Fleo:          18:11          But, before you jump in with any organization that is offering solutions, that you do what you would do with any employee for high level positions, that you interview several, and you learn the landscape, and you learn what’s out there, and you learn the different approaches to how folks are solving problems. You interview just like you would interview for any high level position your partners in philanthropy and your partners in social mission and social good, so that you are getting what you want, you’re getting the best in class, but you’re getting an organization that can walk alongside you and help you fulfill your particular culture’s values, the values of your organization, the things that you …

Tony Fleo:          18:54          And of course, obviously that’s the key factor. Most organizations will give lip service to what are their core values, but really core values are what makes it all work, it’s the energy that you get. Always be able to identify those values, go back to those values, find partners that reinforce those values, and then continue to help you tell the story, your own company’s story, over and over from an outside perspective.

Jon Mertz:          19:22          Sound advice, a good mix of curiosity and due diligence.

Tony Fleo:          19:26          That’s right, that’s right, absolutely.

Jon Mertz:          19:28          Well, Tony, thank you so much. As you know, I’ve appreciated your work through the years, as you and I have worked together in the past through Social Venture Partners Dallas. And the insights that you’ve provided here today in the podcast will help a lot of our listeners in their own journey to get more involved in their local communities. So thank you.

Tony Fleo:          19:45          Well, Jon, we miss you here in Dallas. I’m glad that you are continuing to do social impactful work through this, and you have a home anytime you want to come back to us.

Jon Mertz:          19:54          Okay, I really appreciate that.

Tony Fleo:          19:56          Thanks so much, take care.

Jon Mertz:          20:03          Listeners, we’d love to hear from you.

  • Do you work for a company that’s gotten involved in programs for social good?
  • What’s the experience been like for you? Has it made you a better leader or person?

Send your perspective to me at jon @, that’s Jon without an H, J-O-N Write it out or record it, send it my way. We want to hear and share your thoughts.

Jon Mertz:          20:26          Be sure to tell your friends and colleagues about the Active World Podcast. Encourage them to subscribe, listen, and share from their favorite podcast platform, Apple, Google, Spotify, iHeartRadio, and others. Let us know how we’re doing by leaving a review. Your reviews mean a lot to us.

Be sure to tell your friends and colleagues about the Activate World podcast. Encourage them to subscribe, listen, and share from their favorite podcast platform, AppleGoogleSpotifyiHeartRadioRadioPublic, and others. Let us know how we’re doing by leaving a review. Your reviews mean alot to us.

Jon Mertz:          20:44          Activate World is a team endeavor. Special thanks to Kaela Waldstein and Kent Nutt. Music by Jason Goodyear. For Activate World, I’m Jon Mertz.