Battery Powered Is Paving The Way For A Whole New Type Of Giving

The Battery’s founders Xochi and Michael Birch

Photo Credit: The Battery

When The Battery opened its doors in the fall of 2013, the private social club and boutique hotel was the talk of the town. “The Battery infuses the romance of a throwback era with the pulsing rhythms of contemporary life,” Haute Living said of the Ken Fulk-designed space which includes a restaurant, four bars, a lounge, spa, wine cellar, library, 14 hotel suites, and a spacious penthouse. Six years later The Battery continues to make waves, but this time the talk is about its incredible giving community, Battery Powered.

A club within the club, Battery Powered is a crowd-funded philanthropy effort meant to activate generosity among members. Last fall, Battery Powered announced a $15 million milestone. In the four years since its inception, Battery Powered has granted funds to over 80 organizations. Now as it enters the second trimester of its fifth year, Battery Powered hopes to raise $20 million by 2020. With its unique and contemporary model, Battery Powered is disrupting the world of philanthropy as we know it and creating a new way of giving.

Musto Bar

Photo Credit: Douglas Friedman

“When we opened The Battery we always planned for philanthropy to be part of its DNA,” Michael Birch, The Battery’s co-founder, tells Haute Living. “We wanted to ensure that when we did introduce the philanthropic component that we could really focus on ensuring that it was both innovative and successful in its own right.” Although Michael and his wife and co-founder, Xochi, had no experience with creating a foundation, they had powerful friends who helped them figure out the format. “About three months after we’d opened, Lynne Benioff reached out to me and said that philanthropy should be an integral part of The Battery and asked to meet for a coffee to discuss,” Birch remembers.

“I immediately agreed and thought this is the right time to get serious about it. The first words of the meeting were Lynne suggesting it be called Battery Powered, we loved the name and literally never had a discussion about any other names. During that meeting, we shared some high-level thoughts about the program. One important component for both of us was that Battery Powered should expose members to a wide variety of philanthropic causes, and allow members to explore and learn, and to ultimately find their own areas of passion where they can go deep.”

Colleen Gregerson

Photo Credit: Tom Tomkinson

With Benioff’s expertise, the Birches came up with an interesting original way of giving back. Each year is broken down into trimesters with Battery Powered focusing on three different philanthropic themes: one that highlights local issues, another that looks at national issues, and the third examines global issues. “We have covered things from early childhood education to gun safety and conservation to criminal justice reform and everything in between,” Colleen Gregerson, the executive director of Battery Powered, explains. 2019’s three themes are homelessness, youth opportunity, and addiction and recovery. The entire process is interactive with Battery Powered members nominating the issues and organizations that benefit funding.

Within each theme is a four-month giving cycle that includes various events designed to engage members. First, members are educated on the issue. “We write a brief for that topic, which lays out our framing for the issue and provides an informational background,” Gregerson says. “We have the leading experts on that issue come into the club, and our members can come here and learn from them. We do volunteer days, so people can get their hands more involved in the issue and see it more first hand. Sometimes we do film screenings or intimate dinners around the issue. All are part of that education component.”

Van Jones speaks about criminal justice reform at a Battery Powered educational event

Photo Credit: Marla Aufmuth

For the recent round that explored homelessness in San Francisco, a team of experts participated in a panel discussion in front of Battery Powered. It featured Assemblymember David Chiu, homeless advocate David Elliott Lewis, the city’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing director Jeff Kositsky, and UCSF researcher Dr. Margot Kushel, and it was moderated by Tipping Point CEO and founder, Daniel Lurie.

Education is crucial to the philanthropic arm’s success. “The thing I really appreciate about Battery Powered is it exposes you to a whole range of charities and non-profits, and in a super intellectual way,” Leti Light, an active Battery Powered member says. “I like how they focus on multiple themes throughout the year and social issues. Battery Powered picks them because they’re not only interesting but also really digging in and providing a lot of educational opportunities to understand the issues better and help us to be more informed philanthropists. You get a richer understanding of what it is that you’re trying to solve.”

Michael Birch at Sparked

Photo Credit: Julie Schuchard

After education comes the organization portion of the theme. Battery Powered’s team sifts through the nominations and selects 12 nonprofits that would be able to create long-lasting change with financial help from grants. Larkin Street Youth Services, San Francisco General Hospital Foundation, and Hamilton Families are three of the organizations selected to receive funding during the homeless focus. “Organizations apply through a pretty typical application process,” Gregerson explains.

“We have a panel that does the due diligence on those applicants. That evaluation panel narrows the applicants down to 12 finalists. Then we spend a lot of time educating our members about those 12 nonprofits. They have a profile online, they share short videos, and we invite all 12 into the club one evening. Throughout the night, our members can hear from the leadership of each organization, meet them and ask questions.”

The library

Photo Credit: Douglas Friedman

Battery Powered member Dustin Brown enjoys getting to know each nonprofit personally. “It’s such a wonderful, collaborative, cognitively diverse environment,” he says. “We really get into the nitty-gritty of each organization and why what they’re doing is important.” Once members have a clear understanding of what each organization does, it’s time to allocate the funds. For members, this is the most exciting part of the entire process: being able to donate their dollars.

Five organizations get larger grants which range between  $250,000-$350,000 each. The remaining seven finalists also get a $10,000 grant each. “Allocation night completely transforms your experience,” Light says. “It pulls everything together. It’s inspiring. It’s super social. You see people’s passions really come out. People stand up and advocate for these causes because they’ve gotten to know them personally in their own lives. You wish you could support them all.”

Battery Powered coins used on allocation night

Photo Credit: The Battery

On allocation night, The Battery also offers additional gifting. If anyone wants to donate more to the cause, The Battery will match each donation, which is one of the ways Battery Powered was able to reach its $15 million milestone in four short years. For the final theme in 2018, which focused on healthy democracy, there were so many last-minute donations that all 12 of the finalists were fully funded. “When the funding is complete, there’s incredible electricity in the room,” Brown says excitedly.

By providing members with a creative and stimulating philanthropic experience, Battery Powered also has built a tremendous community. Members connect under a different context—that of giving—which can be a welcome break for those who have high profile demanding careers. “Battery Powered provides a community, and a platform for us to all get to know each other, without the preconceived notions and stereotypes associated with our day jobs,” Brown says.

Gastro Pub

Photo Credit: Douglas Friedman

Light loves the community for the members’ passion. “There is so much joy and energy around being together, and doing this together, and learning together, and connecting one another to other exciting opportunities,” she says. “It’s what, in the last year, has given me a sense of community within the larger Battery clubs for sure.”

The Battery Powered group has 600 members and around 200 active participants per theme. “Our members give a lot to each other in the form of mentorship around philanthropy, around friendship, around sharing ideas, sharing values and sharing great discussions,” Gregerson says. “We are giving in many ways to each other and to the community.”

A panel at Sparked featuring Scott Budnick, Charles Anderson, and Common

Photo Credit: Tom Tomkinson

Earlier this year, The Battery hosted its first fundraiser for Battery Powered. Instead of doing the typical gala, they threw a special one-day event that was meant to ignite change. Sparked, at the end of January, was part retreat and part conference and featured a wide variety of guest speakers including Common, Hope Hall, DJ Spooky, Aza Raskin, Alicia Garza, Alonzo King, Jason Silva, Ayelet Waldman, Miyoko Schinner, and Michael Hebb. The event emphasized the connection and compassion that Battery Powered is known for and generated interest among those who have yet to join the philanthropy club.

With Battery Powered’s monetary and interpersonal success, it begs the question: is this a model that can be replicated elsewhere? “It’s a group of people coming together with shared values who want to make a positive impact on the world around them,” Birch says. “Through that process, the community can share ideas and experiences, and learn from one another. There is nothing we would like more than to see other private clubs and organizations, including companies, launch structured philanthropic programs at least partly inspired by Battery Powered.”

Ubuntu Theater Project’s Othello

Photo Credit: Colin Mandlin

Michael Moran, the executive and artistic director of the Ubuntu Theater Project, received a grant during Battery Powered’s theme on arts and the creative process. Here he explains how Battery Powered changed his Oakland-based organization for the better.

Ubuntu Theater Project’s goal: “Ubuntu Theater Project is a collection of artists that are committed to creating compelling works that unearth the human condition and unite diverse audiences through revelatory, heart-pounding theater. Our mission is to inspire compassion across socioeconomic and racial barriers. We make an effort that our cast reflects and represents Oakland. It’s quite diverse in all different kinds of ways, both racially and socioeconomically.”

How Battery Powered’s grant helped: “It capitulated us. It gave us breathing room, so we could continue our model and teach classes. We’re doing seven shows a year in site-specific locations all across Oakland to reach communities that might not feel like the theater is necessary for them. We’re activating spaces that are usually transactional. Recently, we opened Mother Courage by Bertolt Brecht at Mills College where we just got a residence for the year.”

How Battery Powered inspired the theater troupe: “Working with Battery Powered has been amazing. They’ve been incredibly supportive. It’s, I think, both moving and inspiring to have a funder see your vision and get behind it. That’s really an affirmation.”