Philanthropic Powerhouse

Carol Thompson Cole ’73 strives to better the lives of at-risk kids

by Christina Barber-Just

Every year, the Washingtonian magazine comes out with its list of “Washington’s 100 Most Powerful Women.” The 2011 list includes some very big names: First Lady Michelle Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, US Supreme Court justices, members of the US Senate and House of Representatives—and Carol Thompson Cole ’73, the president and CEO of Venture Philanthropy Partners (VPP), a Washington, DC-based philanthropic investment organization. “Her community and government experience and her interpersonal skills make Cole the ideal go-between for the hard-charging entrepreneurial funders of VPP and the nonprofits that receive VPP investment funds,” the Washingtonian says. Cole’s previous experience includes high-level stints in the Clinton administration, at RJR Nabisco, and in the government of the District of Columbia. Here, the 2004 Smith Medalist and former member of the college’s board of trustees discusses the “wonderful time” she’s having at VPP.Carol Thompson Cole
What is Venture Philanthropy Partners?
The organization’s mission is to concentrate investments of money, expertise, and personal contacts to improve the lives of children and youth in low-income families throughout the Washington, DC, metropolitan area. We do that in three ways. The first is that we help great leaders build stronger nonprofit organizations. They have to have been a leader of an organization that has demonstrated performance against their mission, and they have to be at a point that if they got growth capital they could really take the organization to the next level. The second is that we cultivate an engaged investor community. We raise money and we attempt to use that money and the influence of the people that are part of our network to really support these organizations and social change in our community. And the third is that we take the learning from our work and share it with the field. We share it with other philanthropists, governments, nonprofits. We want to make sure that people learn and can advance the work throughout our region and in other communities.
What do you do as president and CEO?
My responsibilities are to set the vision for the organization, make sure that we operate well, and build a really strong team so that we perform very positively against our mission. So day-to-day I spend my time working with my team, and then I also spend a lot of time raising money for us to keep VPP going so we can provide growth capital to the organizations that we work with. And I’m an advocate in the community for not only our work but for similar work.
How much money have you raised so far?
In the first fund—that was actually before I got to VPP—we raised $32 million. And in the second fund we are very pleased to say that we have now raised $50 million. It’s taken us longer to raise the money because of the economic times, but we still find that there are people who are very philanthropic and are very concerned about the most vulnerable children in our community.
Could you give me an example of a nonprofit that has benefited from your investment funds?
I’ll use the See Forever Maya Angelou Public Charter School. When VPP met those leaders and decided to invest in them, they were serving about 80 kids and were in the early stages of their charter school program. The first thing we did is go in with one of the major strategic planning firms and help them to do a strategic growth plan for the organization. This organization wanted to serve more kids, but they’re working with the most difficult kids; all of the kids they serve are connected to the juvenile court or the family court or in some way need great help. We helped them get a partnership with the DC public schools to have a school that they could expand into, and then they actually expanded into a third school over the course of our investment, so they were serving several hundred kids by the time our investment ended. Then after that investment they made a decision that they wanted to respond to a request for proposals from the city government to take over the education program for the juvenile detention program for the District of Columbia. They won that, and they have been told by many other organizations that they have one of the best education programs inside a correctional facility in the country.
What are your goals going forward?
We definitely want to have a third fund, and we’re in the process now of figuring out exactly how that will work. In the first fund we focused on best-in-class organizations that address any stage of development of a child ages 0 to 21. When we developed the second fund we narrowed things a bit and really focused our attention on youth transitions: trying to get young people from middle school to high school, high school to college or some kind of credential, and then to work. And we did very good work with charter schools, so we are staying focused on educational attainment as well. Now we’re asking how do we get much more outcome focused in our work going forward? We’re looking at selecting fewer outcomes and then driving all of our investments to that.
How does it feel to be named one of Washington’s most powerful women?
It feels good. When I first started work, women were just making inroads into significant positions. I would go to many conferences or meetings and I was the only woman in the room, or one of a few women in the room. It’s in some ways sad that we still have to highlight the hundred most powerful women, but there are so many more powerful women out there. I see tremendous strides that women have made. We’re in great numbers now.
How has your Smith experience influenced your career?
Being at Smith, I got to see that women really could do anything they wanted to do, and I learned how supportive women can be for one another. It was very important in my life. I felt honored to be a member of the board of trustees, and I’m very proud that I received the Smith Medal. Smith has been an important institution for women in women’s education, and I hope it continues to be that for many years.
Christina Barber-Just is a writer in western Massachusetts and is a frequent contributor to the SAQ and the AASC Website.