February 5, 2018

How a San Francisco social club created a new model for activating generosity

In three years, Battery Powered members have given away over $11 million to more than 60 organizations that are changing the world

Former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords speaks to members of Battery Powered—a social giving club made up of some of San Francisco’s most successful artists, investors, and tech innovators—on reducing gun violence. Photo courtesy of Battery Powered

“How wonderful that no one need wait a single moment to improve the world.” — Anne Frank.

And yet, many of us do wait to give of our time, talent, and treasure. Maybe we feel too young and inexperienced, or that we are not able to give enough to make a difference. Fear of making a bad philanthropic gift is a barrier, as is a lack of time to identify the organizations and causes we want to support. This hesitation in giving, no matter the amount, means millions of dollars are sitting on the sidelines when they could be going toward solving society’s most pressing issues right now.

So how do we break down these barriers and activate people’s generosity? That is exactly what we are aiming to do with Battery Powered, a unique collective giving model, based in San Francisco, whose members embark on a learning journey to make informed decisions around their giving.

An Education on Giving

Through three themes each year, members learn about some of the most important issues of our time, from criminal justice reform to conservation, and from childhood nutrition to gun safety. The education program includes issue briefs and films, expert nights, and study sessions. As members learn about the issue, they also discover organizations working on these issues and jointly decide on which ones to fund. With more than 550 members, that means we are giving away over $1 million to each theme!

Supported by a professional team who build the education program for each theme, conduct the due diligence on organizations, and oversee the grants during implementation, the members can focus on discovering what issues and organizations they are passionate about and be assured their dollars are going to impactful projects.

Battery Powered grantee, Creative Growth, is creating a graduate-level program to advance the training of artists with disabilities. Photo courtesy of Battery Powered

While we are only three years old, we have given away over $11 million to more than 60 organizations! But that hasn’t been without trial and error. In fact, as a giving community founded by tech entrepreneurs Michael and Xochi Birch, we are encouraged to try new things, fail fast, and keep learning. We’ve learned valuable lessons along the way to share:

  • Make it social. Studies show that giving is contagious and fundamentally a social act. As such, we primarily use events to gather our members together in person for learning and decision making. New friends and connections are made at each event, deepening members’ commitment to the community and to their giving. In a society that is increasingly digital, our community is a place for people to connect in real life over a common passion for giving back.
  • Get engaged. While our model moves from theme to theme, we found that our members often want to remain engaged in past themes beyond the dollars. Now we pay visits to our grantees’ projects and offer volunteer opportunities to support grantees beyond the dollars. This year we will pilot theme-specific affinity groups for members who want to deepen their engagement and learning on certain themes over a longer time period.

  • Be Purposeful about diversity. An astonishingly low proportion of philanthropic dollars go to organizations led by people of color, and yet communities of color are disproportionately impacted by many of the topics we support, from food insecurity to gun violence prevention. We realized some of our own processes might be contributing to this. While this was unintentional, it has an impact on whose ideas get funded and scaled. We cannot claim victory here yet, but we are much more purposeful now about identifying organizations led by people of color and ensuring they have equal footing in presenting their organizations and projects in front of our membership.

Now that we have a tested model in place, we are aiming for rapid growth. We want to double our membership, and then we want to double it again. We were founded on the belief that we are better together, so growth in membership will enrich our community and expand our capacity to impact the most important causes of our time. Growth will also mean more people aren’t waiting a single moment to improve the world—and themselves.

Colleen Gregerson

Battery Powered

Colleen Gregerson is passionate about innovating in philanthropy to unlock tremendous talent and generosity toward the most important issues of our time. She is the founding Executive Director for Battery Powered, an innovative philanthropic model that is activating the generosity of the Battery community to find and fund people and projects with a serious chance of making society stronger. Before that, she led the Maverick Collective, guiding a community of philanthropists' talents and treasure toward ending extreme poverty. She also led the Business Development department at Population Services International, where she developed and executed a strategy that raised over $1.9 billion for global health initiatives during the four years of her leadership. She earned her masters degree in international development from American University while working in program management at the International Foundation for Election Systems. She sits on the board of YTH, an Oakland-based organization that is advancing the health of youth and young adults through technology.