August 29, 2006

Gates Foundation Taps Local Entrepreneur

By Riya Bhattacharjee

Fay Twersky was not looking to leave BTW informing change, the West Berkeley consulting firm she co-founded eight years ago. But in a June meeting with her staff, she surprised them—and, to some extent, herself—with unexpected news: In September she would be packing up and moving to Seattle to join the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

She hadn’t sought the job; she was more than content to stay put, at least for the time being, continuing to lead the company she and her life partner Jill Blair had nurtured since 1998. But when presented with the opportunity to sign on with the world’s largest philanthropic organization, she simply couldn’t say no.

Blair, Twersky and Paul Wisotzky co-founded BTW with the goal of doing their part to effect social change by providing consultation services for the non-profit and philanthropic sectors.

“We wanted to have a values-based firm which would blend good data with good planning,” she said in a recent telephone interview. “BTW helps foundations and nonprofits of all sizes on program and initiative evaluation in the areas of community economic development, social enterpreneurship, public health, education, adolescent services, educational media and organizational capacity building.”

“We work with nonprofits and philanthropic foundations to inform change through a variety of strategies including evaluation, strategic planning [and] applied research,” explained Kim Ammann Howard, BTW’s director of evaluation and organizational learning.

The company provides a number of services, from helping foundations and nonprofits to craft and articulate their missions, to setting up evaluation processes by which the organizations can get an accurate measurement of their progress, thereby better enabling them to meet their intended goals and ensure that the services they provide are reaching their targeted populations.

Other companies provide similar services but Twersky and Blair sought to bring another dimension to their work by making it more of a collaborative process. They didn’t want to simply write up a report and hand it to a client only to have it filed away and forgotten; instead, they work with their clients to interpret the data and to develop methods for applying the lessons learned.

“Fay has been an integral part in shaping our company culture,” said BTW Senior Associate Rayna Caplan. “[M]any of her innovations are now BTW signature products.”

After spending more than a decade helping others plan for change, the dramatic and sudden personal change sparked by the Gates offer caught Twersky by surprise.

“I got a phone call from the Gates Foundation saying that they were looking for someone to head up their impact assessment department,” Twersky recounted. “I initially referred them to someone else. But then they expressed an interest in my work and wanted to know more about it … [O]nce I got to know more about their work and their level of commitment, I was really impressed with who they were and what they did. The opportunity became very compelling and I decided that I was ready for a change.”

Twersky will serve as the foundation’s impact assessment and improvement officer.

“I will be there to make sure that their grant-making system is working in the best possible way and to put in place a system of measurement,” she said. “It is exciting to think that these strategies will be affecting lives at a global level, which makes them all the more important.”

A double major in Middle Eastern studies and rhetoric at the University of California at Berkeley, Twersky took a year off after graduation in 1981 to visit Israel. Upon her return, she worked for the Red Cross in Richmond.

“It was then that I realized that I wanted to do something for social change,” she said.

She then went on to pursue a master’s degree in city planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, after which she consulted for nonprofits and philanthropic organizations while working for the Center for Applied Local Research in Richmond and later for Harder+Company Community Research in San Francisco. She also co-edited the 1998 book New Social Entrepreneurs: The Success, Challenge and Lessons of Non-Profit Enterprise Creation.

It was while working for Harder+Company that Wisotzky, Twersky and Blair all came together and set out to create BTW, founding the company on three core principles: intelligence, integrity and compassion.

Wisotzky retired from consulting in 2002 to devote his time to volunteer work for global HIV/AIDS issues.

It’s no insult to Twersky when her staff says the company will do fine without her. Indeed, it was her confidence in her employees that allowed her to ultimately decide to take the job with the Gates Foundation. In the June meeting, she praised the BTW staff as the strongest team the company has ever assembled, giving her the confidence to leave the business in their hands. And the staff, in turn, gives all the credit to Twersky.

“Fay is a true mentor and role model,” said BTW Associate Kris HelĂ©. “She inspires her colleagues with her passion, knowledge, wit and respect for our clients and the important work they are engaged in. Fay is one of the brightest minds in the field … She has certainly left her mark on BTW, and she will be an incredible asset to the Gates Foundation.”

While Jill Blair will continue her role as principal, working from the couple’s new Seattle home, Ellen Irie has been promoted from vice president to managing partner. Irie too has nothing but praise for Twersky.

“She is an enduring optimist,” said Irie, “who firmly believes that individuals and organizations, given the right tools and supports, can make positive change.”

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