Spark… Of Brilliance! 7

Spark Ventures is the new model of the business of philanthropy.

What is Spark Ventures and what does it have to do with me?

Spark Ventures is “a Chicago-based nonprofit with international partnerships that provide children in poverty with nutrition, education, and healthcare.” Here’s another way of putting it: business driven philanthropy investing human and financial resources to lift communities out of poverty.

Let’s get to the bottom of this… Spark Ventures leverages philanthropic dollars to fund actual businesses with partners in poverty-stricken parts of the globe (currently Zambia and Nicaragua). Donated dollars turn into food and agriculture businesses. Profits from these businesses then support local programming in education, health and nutrition. Philanthropic money turns into reinvested money so the businesses continue to fund critical social programs long after the initial contribution.

How about an example?

In Nicaragua, Spark Ventures has launched a farm with honeybee hives. There are 30 hives, expanding to 100 hives soon, along with cacao, coffee and chilies. This project not only provides honey to sell, but also local employment. Their social impact partner, Las Tias provides programming for children and families in the area while being supported by the revenue stream created by the honey and other agricultural products.

What’s happening in Zambia?

Hope Ministries is a social impact partner in Zambia. They provide nutrition, education and healthcare to 350 vulnerable children in the country. There, Spark Ventures launched a poultry farm that raises and sells more than 120,000 chickens annually. The poultry farm also employs approximately 12 people in the community. Some of the business profits are reinvested back into the poultry farm. But, the majority of the funds will support the programs at Hope Ministries.

Let’s get back to what Spark Ventures provides for their partners.

By working with grass-roots organizations serving children in developing countries, Spark offers human resources, strategic guidance and financial capital that these organizations otherwise would not have access to. The other form of capital that is so critical to their overall success is the building of relationships.

Why are relationships so important?

Because Spark Ventures has made it fun and rewarding for people (you and me!) to get involved far beyond writing a check for a philanthropic venture. Spark has fine-tuned the model of bringing volunteers to their locations and work alongside their social impact partners. These trips, called “Impact Travel,” combine adventure with philanthropic benevolence.

Here’s what it has to do with us – you and me.

Some of our own Metro area neighbors and friends are intimately involved with Spark Ventures. Stephanie Denzer, a graduate of The Barstow School who holds a master’s degree from the University of Chicago, has worked as a key member of the small Spark Ventures team for the past three years. There, she has worn many hats, from marketing and communications to event management to trip coordination to monitoring performance metrics.

Spark Ventures was so appealing to Denzer’s family and friends that some of the people closest to her have traveled to Zambia and Nicaragua, and still more are planning to do so in the near future. Many intrepid travelers have been on more than one trip with Spark. Jan Johnson, a resident of Bucyrus, traveled with Spark to Zambia in 2014. Sue Bernstein, another traveler from Overland Park has been to Zambia twice, Nicaragua once, and will be returning to Zambia this summer. “The most compelling for me is how Spark’s involvement has impacted the lives of the children, teachers and staff, the surrounding community, as well as the local and international volunteers,” says Bernstein of her experience traveling with Spark.

Selling “Impact Travel” to adventurers is easy. Why not travel and make a difference in a community that uses resources so wisely? These benefits are an amazing attraction:

  • • Volunteering and engaging with the social program partners and the children who benefit from the investments of time and money
  • • Great food and accommodations (per previous travelers)
  • • Immersion in the cultural experiences (food, dance, music, history)
  • • Wonderful excursions and tourism
  • • Expanding your own horizons

Other local residents from Stilwell, Carol and Tom Barnett, are excited about their upcoming venture to Zambia. They are traveling with Spark to make a difference. But, while they are there, why not add on a once-in-a-lifetime safari?

There are multiple opportunities to travel in the near future to either Zambia or Nicaragua. And, some trips feature special incentives such as traveling with Sparks’ CEO, Rich Johnson; or a condensed itinerary for busy business professionals; or traveling with your own children. Imagine the impact of a philanthropic trip that benefits children closest to you, as well as children around the globe.

Speaking of Johnson, he founded Spark Ventures in 2007 with two partners after his own travels took him to Zambia, where he was confronted with stark poverty and a community deeply affected by HIV/AIDS. He returned determined to make a difference for the children and families he met, along with the staff at Hope Ministries. Since then, the staff at Spark have provided meal and clinic programs, classroom facilities, achieved a 100 percent graduation rate for students, added a poultry farm, sold thousands of chickens, and now have sustained 15 percent of their social impact partners’ budget.

Now, that’s making a difference in a brilliant way!

For more information, visit, or contact Stephanie Denzer at