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Member Spotlight: Jennifer Ratay, Executive Director of Silicon Valley Social Venture Fund

Monday, August 15, 2016

Jennifer Ratay is the Executive Director of the Silicon Valley Social Venture Fund (SV2). As a part of our Member Spotlight Series, Jen told us about her current favorite reads and guilty pleasures. She may not be alone in these.

How’d you get started in this work?

As a young girl growing up in Massachusetts with Boston Celtics posters plastering my bedroom walls, I had two big dreams. I dreamed of being the first female National Basketball Association head coach. I also dreamed of seeing women represented equally at the highest rungs of leadership, including corporate America, the U.S. Congress, and the White House.

After majoring in Government in college, I headed to Washington D.C., where I started out as a legislative aide on Capitol Hill working on what were then called “women’s issues,” such as the gender pay gap.

Decades on, my social change path broadened to a wider array of social and environmental issues, which I’m fortunate to work on today.

These days I lead the Silicon Valley Social Venture Fund, commonly known as SV2, a community of individuals and families in the Bay Area who join together to learn about and practice effective philanthropy. SV2’s mission is to unleash the resources and talents of the Silicon Valley community to support local nonprofits and social enterprises that are working to improve people’s lives here at home and around the world.

Are you new in your role? Been there a while?

I first joined the SV2 community as a Partner in 2012 in order to deepen my understanding of the social and environmental challenges here in my own Bay Area backyard while continuing to build my skills in philanthropy. At the time, I was serving as a program officer at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation where I worked with the foundation’s leadership team on issues related to foundation-wide strategy, evaluation, and learning and ran the foundation’s Organizational Effectiveness grantmaking program. When the opportunity arose to step into the Executive Director role at SV2, I jumped at the chance because I loved SV2’s mission, its collaborative giving model, and the people I met through SV2. To me, SV2 represented high-impact philanthropy as a team sport -- I was hooked.

I have now been in this role for three years during which we’ve launched a new strategic plan, hired a new staff team, and implemented a slate of “learn-by-doing” experiential education programs for donors. As an example, in addition to making multi-year capacity building grants to local nonprofits and providing skilled volunteer support, SV2 has recently begun making impact investments into early-stage mission-driven companies.

On a personal note, my husband and I strive to raise our elementary school-aged children with a strong set of core values, especially service to others and gratitude for all the opportunities we’re fortunate to have. Part of my work at SV2 also focuses on teaching the next generation of Bay Area givers through our Kids Family Service and Teens Philanthropy programming. I treasure watching these young leaders – some with significant family financial resources – learn, serve, and commit to lives of purpose and meaning.

What’s next on your agenda (workwise)?

We still have a lot of work to do to transform how Silicon Valley gives. We are witnessing record levels of income inequality in our region, and our neighbors are struggling with significant challenges such as securing affordable housing, finding stable employment at a living wage, and helping their children navigate a troubled school system. The need has never been greater for strong nonprofits to help address these serious challenges. And these brave nonprofits need flexible funding from thoughtful, humble funders with a partnership mindset.

Sometimes well-meaning donors can actually do more harm than good with their contributions. For instance, there is still too much short-term, project-based grantmaking that doesn’t cover the full cost of nonprofits’ programming and operations. Additionally, I’ve seen many funders require nonprofits to spend valuable resources submitting detailed applications and grant reports that arguably are not appropriate for the size of the grant. At SV2, we’re determined to change many of these common practices that can undermine the health and impact of nonprofits.

Having recently returned from China to speak on venture philanthropy, it’s clear that the eyes of emerging philanthropists around the world are watching intently to see how Bay Area funders will respond to the great opportunity and need before us. For SV2, it’s both an exciting and high-stakes time to be doing our work. It gives me great hope that SV2 community members have a seemingly insatiable appetite to learn about and then put to use a comprehensive set of tools to create positive social impact, such as grantmaking, impact investing, skilled volunteering, family service, policy and systems change, and nonprofit board service, as a handful of examples.

What’s your favorite on-screen guilty pleasure? (YouTube channel, Netflix, network show etc)

I’m a softie for the Olympics, Copa America and Euro Cup soccer, and March Madness basketball.

The current U.S. Presidential race is another time I find myself rooting hard and occasionally hollering at the T.V. screen.

Tell us what you do in your work (pretend I’m a fifth-grader)

I work with a large group of families in Silicon Valley who pool their money together and give it to organizations who are helping less fortunate families in our community.

When and where are you happiest?

I’m happiest when Ieading courageous teams, particularly women, to mountain peaks -- literally and metaphorically. Years ago, I led multiple all-women mountaineering trips for Stanford Graduate School of Business students and alumnae up Mt Shasta, the second tallest mountain in Northern California. Experiences like this have taught me a great deal about teams, character, and leadership, including that I thrive most when doing something hard that pushes me out of my comfort zone and involves teamwork. As my mother would always say, “Jen, it’s the hard that makes it great.” I’ve come to agree.

Where are you inviting collaboration these days?

Everywhere, really. Collaboration is in SV2’s DNA. It’s a central core value that guides us.

For instance, we’re looking to collaborate with large and small foundations and mission-oriented companies who would like to provide their staff talent with the opportunity to engage in SV2’s learning, giving, and leadership development programming.

We’re also looking to develop new relationships with “pipeline Partners” – that is, fellow funders who have high-potential organizations in their portfolios where SV2’s multiyear capacity building grants, impact investments, or skilled volunteers could help make an outsized impact.

Additionally, we can provide foundations or other donors an easy way to outsource their local Bay Area giving through SV2’s carefully-curated grantee portfolio.

If you care about unleashing the resources and talents of Silicon Valley for good and addressing the significant needs in our Bay Area backyard, we’d very much like to hear from you with other ideas as well.

Who are your favorite writers?

I was deeply moved by Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me in which Coates shares a letter to his son about feelings and realities associated with being black in America.

I also appreciate Arlene Blum, author of Breaking Trail and Annapurna: A Women’s Place. Blum organized and helped lead the first all-woman expedition to the summit of McKinley in 1970, became the first American woman to attempt Everest in 1976 and, in 1978, led a successful expedition up Annapurna, which set an altitude record for American women.


Do you have questions for Jen or ideas for collaboration? You can contact her at:

Twitter: @JenRatay

LinkedIn: Jennifer Ratay

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