“This Model is Working.” A Bay Area Private Club Moves Millions for Social Causes

Homelessness is the latest cause for Battery Powered. Stefan Kramer/shutterstock

Homelessness is the latest cause for Battery Powered. Stefan Kramer/shutterstock

At the start of last year, I wrote about tech couple Michael and Xochi Birch and the Bay Area social club they founded in 2013 called The Battery. Through the club’s philanthropic arm, Battery Powered, members nominate giving themes and contribute to local, national and international nonprofits.

One of the central goals of Battery Powered is to break down barriers to giving and educate budding philanthropists on a range of issue areas in the hopes that they might find something to explore more deeply. Part of the story here is that the Birches, as young philanthropists themselves, struggled to find organizations that really resonated with them—that is, until they discovered charity:water, which they’ve been supporting at a high level for about a decade.

Battery Powered, meanwhile, after giving away $11 million in just three years, recently hit the $15 million mark near its four-year anniversary. I caught up with Michael Birch and Battery Powered Executive Director Colleen Gregerson about this significant milestone and what’s new with the organization since last year. In the process, I learned more about an unconventional giving model that seems to be gaining traction.

“We’re really moving and grooving now,” Gregerson said of Battery Powered when I spoke to her. For those who did not read our earlier piece on the organization, Battery Powered educates members about philanthropic issues and then collectively grants funds to organizations within a selected giving theme. Themes have included prison reform, gun safety and childhood nutrition. And membership includes investors, tech entrepreneurs, nonprofit leaders, and artists, ranging in age from their 20s to their seventies.

Right now, Gregerson tells me membership is on the rise. There were 550 Battery members last we spoke. Now that number is over 600. But while the organization aims to hit the $20 million mark by 2020, an additional aim for the new decade is to attain 20 percent participation in Battery Powered. “We hope to continue that growth trajectory so we can put even more money into the issues we all care about so much,” Gregerson explains. Birch adds that while over 50 percent of new Battery members join Battery Powered, “the task now is to galvanize legacy members.”

The foundation’s fall theme, Healthy Democracies, was successful, from what Gregerson describes, especially in the current political climate. “Members were extremely engaged in that topic, since it was relevant in the news, and had excellent participation in expert night and pitch night.”

Battery Powered awarded five large grants to Campaign Legal Center for work to end partisan gerrymandering; Community Connect Labs, for work ensuring a complete count of the 2020 Census in California; Groundswell Action Fund, Represent.Us, and Ignite, whose aim is to increase representation of women in elected bodies of the United States.

There were several firsts for Battery Powered this year. It was the first time the outfit had enough funding to fully meet all five finalist organization’s requests. What’s more, the additional seven finalist organizations also received $10,000. (In prior years, the 12 finalist organizations were whittled down to a batch of five sole recipients.)

The next theme, which ends in March, is called Homelessness Solutions for San Francisco. Birch is particularly excited about this theme in light of the recently passed Proposition C, which provided a larger budget to tackle homelessness in San Francisco. Birch says the issue of homelessness in the Bay Area is “more relevant than ever… it’s always been a problem, but it’s more stark now in light of the success of Silicon Valley.” The likes of Marc Benioff poured at least $7 million into the campaign for Proposition C.

After the homelessness theme ends, Battery Powered will shift to Opportunity Youth and then Addiction and Recovery Solutions to the Drug Crisis in the United States.

When I asked Gregerson about the significance of Battery Powered’s $15 million milestone, she said:

When the program first launched, we had no idea if it was going to have traction. I think by reaching this milestone, as well as reaching the level of participation that we have, I think that really is our solid indicator that this model is working, that this model can put significant funds out into the community than might otherwise have gone there. The collaboration, spirit of collaboration over the past year, proves that we’re being accepted into the community as a model that is attracting philanthropic resources that might otherwise have sat on the sidelines, and finding a place to lean in and dive into their generosity and give back in a meaningful way. 

The sense that the Battery Powered model works is something that Michael Birch also felt. He said:

Obviously, it’s a very meaningful amount of money, in only four years. The founding principle was to make this kind of a collaborative thing, not about us. We were creating a community that goes on this journey together and explores a wide variety and breadth of themes. It’s also a journey of discovery. It’s a milestone that we’ve reached this target, and now we have a new one, but I think the fundamentals of the program have worked from the beginning. We’re now trying to reach that greater level of scale and awareness. 

Looking forward to the expansion of this giving model down the line, Gregerson tells me that she has several hopes. The first continuing to put meaningful resources into excellent organizations to support their work. Battery Powered now has the ability to give more, up to $250,000 for an individual organization and up to $300,000 for collaborative efforts. That’s some real cash, comparable to the size of grants made by major foundations.

But perhaps more important than just the funds, Gregerson says that Battery Powered is trying to “create 600 more informed citizens on an issue. This is why the first two months of each theme is centered around education, learning about the issues together... If we can help shift perspectives about the causes of some of these issues, I think that, in the long run, is equally if not more valuable than the resources that we give away.”

Related: Battery Powered: A Tech Couple Aims to Break Down the Barriers to Giving