2008's Washingtonians of the Year: Raul Fernandez

By: Leslie Milk, Ellen Ryan

Raul Fernandez is a double-barreled philanthropist.

Raul and his wife, Jean-Marie, started the Fernandez Foundation to help DC kids get better education and healthcare with grants to local groups already doing the job well. The foundation has been a major supporter of the inner-city consortium of Catholic schools.

“We grew up in middle-class families. We’re very focused on helping young people who can’t get the types of breaks we got,” Fernandez says.

At the same time, Fernandez is one of the founders of Venture Philanthropy Partners, which uses major donations to change nonprofit organizations from the inside out. In the late ’90s, Mario Morino asked Fernandez and Mark Warner to join him in setting up a venture-capital fund that would invest in nonprofits. They would seek out other investors, do due diligence on potential investments, and help nonprofit leaders apply proven business principles to their organizations.

VPP raised $32 million from area donors—including Fernandez. Then the partnership selected 12 area nonprofits and set a five-year deadline to see results. Most of the investors are used to reading balance sheets, Fernandez says: “We want accountability on those dollars.”

The Latin American Youth Center was one of that deserving dozen. “Raul and VPP changed the way business approached our region,” director Lori Kaplan says. VPP helped the center write a strategic plan, made a multiyear investment based on the plan, and put people on the center’s board to expand the charity’s network of supporters.

The DC-based center has since opened three sites in Maryland, and one in four kids served is in Prince George’s or Montgomery County. “I’ve met with almost every group,” Fernandez says. “It’s been a learning experience. It’s awkward at first, but you quickly realize that you have to define ‘value’ a different way.”

A second VPP fund has raised more than $37 million toward its goal of $50 million.

Fernandez credits area nonprofit leaders with the creativity and passion that are the lifeblood of every organization. “We don’t make anything new,” he says. “We’re in the business of making what they do bigger and better.”

See all of the 2008 Washingtonians of the Year