Sparking the Seeds of Social Ventures


“Sparkseed has been a huge help,” says Jason Shah, founder of, a free SAT-prep program that he started while still in high school. “Specifically, [because of Sparkseed], connections have been huge, as well as constant feedback on new ideas (including our latest website redesign), problem-solving sessions (i.e. to discuss metrics) and also with respect to identifying new partner programs,” says Shah.

Shah is referring to Mike Del Ponte’s organization that was founded on Del Ponte’s idea that the “best way to create social change [is] through entrepreneurship.”

Sparkseed invites businesses to apply for support and uses a panel to review applications to choose which social ventures get the awards – consisting of $1,000 in cash, $10,000 in Web tools and pro bono counseling and mentoring.

Does it work?

I Need a Pencil has done well.  Shah has garnered several grants, lots of media mentions and has helped 24,000 students raise their SAT scores by 200 points, on average, according to Sparkseed and a few Google searches.

“Sparkseed has helped us connect with numerous other teams, competitions, and individuals in the social entrepreneurship [community],” says Shah. “Specifically, Sparkseed put me in touch with another SAT prep service, SEED Test Prep, and … pointed [me] to major competitions like the Dell Social Innovation Competition and the Do Something Awards.”

Shah also explained that the arduous application process was “challenging and thought-provoking.”  On the other hand, a recipient of one of Sparkseed’s 2009 rewards said the process “was longer than it should have been for the donation we would ultimately receive.”  Another said, “I’d rather not discuss my experience with Sparkseed.”

Interestingly, both of those organization’s websites are little more than initial attempts, there is little to no media mention paid to them, and even the organization’s activities on social media is quite limited. Compare that to or, each with a very workable site and a clear presence in social media.

Does that mean Sparkseed failed?

Oh, no.

Sometimes, it is not enough for a social entrepreneur to have a great idea.  If there is some ambivalence, or intrusion of other interests, the idea can fail-–whether it wins grants or not.

“To build a start-up you really have to put your heart and soul into it,” says Del Ponte, responding to my question about why some of his grantees appeared less than complimentary about the program. “Some of our innovators work 100% on their ventures; others take part-time internships,” Del Ponte says, adding, “Next year everyone will be in a physical incubator in San Francisco, which will provide a community and culture that will really help people grow their ventures quickly and have a closer relationship with Sparkseed.”

And that move by Sparkseed could mean the difference between success and failure of these social ventures and could help more understand the value of “life long connections with friends, mentors, and rockstar social-entrepreneurs” – as 2010 grant winner and founder of , Jimmy Tomczak, puts it.

Jennifer Hicks is a freelance journalist and the lead editor of SmartBrief on Sustainability, a free daily e-newsletter that offers a round up of the day's most important news for businesses and consumers interested in sustainability issues. Her work has appeared on several health, business and political Web sites.

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