Such confidence drove David Lunsford, a 15-year veteran of Dell Computer Corporation, to help found Austin Social Venture Partners two years ago. The group now boasts more than 100 partners, each of whom contributes a minimum of $5,000 for a voting membership. Many give more. But beyond writing checks, the members - among them Dell managers, attorneys, public relations execs, and CPAs - stand ready to invest their intellectual capital in the nonprofit agencies ASVP decides to help. Some take seats on the nonprofits' boards, while others help them set up benefit plans, develop PR campaigns, avoid liability problems, or draft five-year business plans. The partners have made numerous grants, typically ranging from $20,000 to $60,000, to organizations working on education and health-related issues.

Lunsford says that ASVP invests in "fixing the root causes" of various social problems. He notes, for example, the troubling rise in the incidence of diabetes among low-income groups. Because many cases of diabetes can be traced to poor diet, Lunsford says, ASVP plowed money into an Austin-area nonprofit called The Sustainable Food Center, which educates people about the relationship between diet and diabetes, and offers information about buying and cooking healthy foods.

"Promoting a good diet can significantly reduce the onset of adult diabetes later in life," says Lunsford. "So you get out of this cycle of just treating the symptoms. We think an investment in the front end here will pay off tenfold or a hundredfold down the road."

Lunsford and ASVP believe that venture philanthropy will help bring what he calls "market sense" to the nonprofit world. In one surprising move, ASVP even engineered a merger between two small nonprofits that were working on different aspects of the same problem. Handling the details was a former Disney executive.