Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

Social Capitalists

Vanessa Kirsch

When Vanessa Kirsch cofounded New Profit Inc. along with colleague Kelly Fitzsimmons in 1999, her goal was to provide performance-based funding and management development support for social entrepreneurs. Two critical experiences led her to the idea of launching what was essentially a venture-capital fund for the nonprofit world: First was her personal experience with the challenge of growing a nonprofit organization. During her tenure at the helm of Public Allies, a national-service program to develop young community leaders, it expanded to six cities and was cited as a model national-service program by both the Bush and Clinton administrations. But donors weren't rewarding the organization's success. Kirsch learned that typically, if nonprofit organizations weren't bleeding red ink, potential donors thought, "Oh, they don't need my money anymore." She noted that some nonprofits chose to run a deficit to encourage contributions. To Kirsch, that seemed like a model doomed to fail.

The second critical experience came during a trip to Vietnam. Kirsch met a local activist who was extending the life expectancy of people in her village by educating them about simple health- and diet-related issues. And yet in the adjacent village, people were still dying of the same diseases their neighbors had nearly eradicated, Kirsch says. Kirsch thought it was sadly ironic: People in that neighboring village has access to Coca-Cola (which some clever entrepreneur had figured out how to import) but not to the information that was saving lives a few miles down the road. She began to wonder what the world might look like if the kind of business ingenuity that had brought soda to a developing country could be harnessed to solve social problems.

Today, Kirsch and Fitzsimmons strive to reward success and efficiency in their portfolio, as well as harness the entrepreneurial drive often seen in money-making enterprises. "We focus on taking a few good ideas and really scaling them," she says. The New Profit portfolio is composed of sustainable nonprofits that Kirsch says "have a potential to make a huge impact."

So far, New Profit has seen impressive results from its strategy. The average annual growth rate for a nonprofit, says Kirsch, is 3% to 7%. The average growth rate for a New Profit-supported organization is about 25%. In determining growth, New Profit takes into account the number of people an organization affects and how profoundly it affects them.

Prior to launching New Profit, Kirsch founded and led Public Allies and the Women's Information Network. The Woman's Information Network (WIN), an organization that provides support, training, and political access to young women, grew to a membership of 2,000 during Kirsch's tenure.

Before creating these entrepreneurial organizations, Kirsch worked with Peter Hart of Peter D. Hart Research Associates, a polling firm, and played a key role in several projects including a study on young people's civic attitudes. This study, combined with her experience as a convention manager and field coordinator for the Dukakis presidential campaign, led her to start Public Allies.

Kirsch has been recognized by both Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report as a leader of her generation; by Harpers Bazaar as one of 30 young women leaders in the 21st century; and by the Boston Business Journal's "40 Under 40" as one of the most promising leaders in Boston.

Return to the Advisory Board profile index.