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

 Global conservation, including of rainforests, is a 2018 theme of battery powered. photo:  Nokuro/shutterstock

Global conservation, including of rainforests, is a 2018 theme of battery powered. photo:  Nokuro/shutterstock

Ever heard of Bebo? Launched in 2005 by England-born Michael Birch and his wife Xochi, an L.A. native, the social networking site was once the sixth largest website in England. Bebo eventually sold to AOL for $850 million, netting the couple a cool $595 million for their 70 percent stake. Funny enough, they later repurchased Bebo for $1 million, hoping to retool it. (Sounds like something out of HBO's zany satire Silicon Valley).

The Birches have launched several other startups through the years, and are based in the Bay Area. On the philanthropic end, perhaps they're best known for their steady support of charity:water, the nonprofit that provides clean and safe drinking water to people in developing nations. The couple have given the organization millions and have also helped raise millions through their networks. More under-the-radar, meanwhile, is the Birches work through The Battery, a social club founded in 2013, and Battery Powered, the club's philanthropic arm. Battery members nominate giving themes and contribute to local, national, and international nonprofits. The outfit now boasts 550 members and has given away $11 million in just three years.

I recently spoke with Michael Birch and Battery Powered Executive Director Colleen Gregerson to get a better understanding of their work. For Birch, it seems impossible to talk about the story of Battery Powered before first talking about charity:water. Just as the Birches were selling Bebo, Scott Harrison, charity:water's founder, reached out to them. Harrison himself has an interesting background. A former nightclub and fashion promoter in New York City, Harrison rediscovered his Christian faith, moved to West Africa and served aboard a floating hospital through Mercy Ships. Since then, his goal has been to "wear charity."

Not only was Birch attracted to Harrison's powerful story, but also his out-of-the box thinking and startup-like philosophy. As Birch puts it, Harrison seemed like someone who "had the ability to rethink the way nonprofits themselves worked." The couple met with Harrison, helped fund operational costs for charity:water, and have been steadily backing the organization since 2008. For those who underestimate the power of a quality website, Birch raved about charity:water's "beautiful" one, which he scoured through before even having met Harrison. 

On the heels of falling in love with charity:water, Birch tells me that he thought philanthropy would be relatively easy. They now had tons of cash on hand and were able to hobnob at galas and fundraisers in the hopes of finding other passions and making an impact. But when the couple failed to have that same powerful experience, they took matters into their own hands and founded Battery Powered in part to, as Birch tells me, "find their next charity:water."

Birch and Xochi also started to wonder if others were having similar experiences, and better yet, if they could help others find their philanthropic voice, just as they themselves were honing theirs. As Birch explains, Battery Powered would be a "learning journey that everyone would go on and in the process of that support new causes while also helping members discover what they’re interested in.”

Battery Powered Executive Director Colleen Gregerson, meanwhile, echoed that while The Battery is a nice place to hang out, from the very beginning, Birch and Xochi wanted their space to have a deeper meaning and bring together the community through a collective giving model. While some of Battery's members are from the tech and finance space, as would be expected in the Bay Area, others are journalists, artists, nonprofit professionals, and others. Members range from their 20s to their 70s. Back in 2014, Battery Powered's first theme was criminal justice reform and the California prison system.

Colleen helped break down Battery Powered's process from nominating themes to choosing and funding organizations. Each fall, members nominate issues that resonate with them. Colleen says they recently received over 90 nominations and whittled these all the way down to three. In 2018, membership has selected childhood nutrition in the Bay Area as its local theme. In the spring, they'll switch gears to global conservation, specifically conservation of oceans and tropical forests. Strengthening democracy, meanwhile, will be the fall theme, just in time for the sure-to-be-eventful midterm elections. 

Under each of these themes is a portfolio of grantees, which is also selected by members through a nomination process. Members might have had some of these nonprofits on their radar and/or served on their boards. Battery Powered brings in experts to run educational programming, who also make nonprofit nominations. An expert panel on gun reform, for instance, included a lawyer from a nonprofit think tank, and a young tech CEO working on gun technology that incorporates fingerprint recognition. In this way, Battery Powered also provides the experience of an education. Colleen also notes that while there's education and grantmaking that goes on during a theme, nonprofits receive ongoing support for several years, so many themes are "live" at once. 

By being exposed to a range of themes and nonprofits, members have the opportunity to find things that stick. Colleen, for instance, notes that on the heels of their mental health theme and grantee Crisis Text Line, several members continued to support the organization through fundraising, networking and volunteer time.

Colleen emphasizes that one of the aims of Battery Powered is to "create a model to really help break down some of the barriers people feel to getting involved with philanthropy." Some impediments might include feeling too young, not being able to give enough, or the fear of making a bad philanthropic investment. Another, of course, is time. Battery Powered's model aims to create "an easy place for members to do strategic philanthropy collectively so that the funds we put out are meaningful."

Battery Powered's year-long commitment also provides the opportunity for members to be involved with all three themes. Maybe one theme doesn't particularly resonate with a member, but Colleen believes it's a good chance for people to understand how many of these issues are interconnected. During Battery Powered's arts theme, for instance, members learned about and supported the Imagine Bus project, an arts education organization that works with incarcerated youth and youth impacted by the juvenile justice system. This, of course, dovetails with Battery Powered's inaugural theme.

As for Birches, away from Battery Powered, Xochi is also on the board of WildAid, a Bay Area-based organization that focuses on reducing the demand for wildlife products. Oh, and they're still on the hunt for their next charity:water.