Boston is a city known for its constant innovation—one filled with so many big thinkers and bold movers dedicated to making the community a more equitable place for its citizens. One of those is John Simon, Co-Founder and Board Chair of the GreenLight Fund, a non-profit designed to open economic mobility opportunities for children, youth and families living in poverty by creating local infrastructure and a consistent annual process to scale what works for long term impact.
Ahead of GreenLight’s Golf for Good tournament on September 13th—which V2 proudly sponsors—I spoke with John about the organization’s start and the inspiring work it’s done since then.
What inspired the idea behind the GreenLight Fund?
Being involved in replicating other non-profits I founded or co-founded and having backed non-profit organizations that were scaling to other cities, I saw how hard the process was. At the same time, I saw how much communities and their residents—especially those in low-asset, low-income and under-represented situations—truly wanted and needed better outcomes and more ladders to opportunity.
Something was broken, though; while innovative, measurably life-changing solutions for change (with scalable and sustainable funding models, too) were out there, they weren’t in these individuals’ particular communities. In order to change this status quo, we needed to set up a dedicated entity in each city to work on this “greenlighting”—people whose day jobs were focusing on what the community was missing and working to solve that. That’s why we set up GreenLight: to uniquely create those jobs in a community-driven way!
GreenLight is currently in 10—soon to be 13—cities. How do you identify the geographies where there is a need for your support?
We take a variety of factors into account including—but not limited to—the size of the city’s population that’s living in poverty; current metrics and data on poverty, life outcomes and educational, economic and social mobility; the local philanthropic and business ecosystem and interest in innovation and change; governmental and civic infrastructure; pillar institutions we can work with; immediacy and timing of needs; key relationships we have and/or can establish and depth of demand for GreenLight; how it fits in with our current network as far as incremental value-add to our network and as far as our network can add incremental value to the city; and resident and community feedback and engagement.
What are some of the focuses for your Boston operations?
Over the past 16+ years, GreenLight Boston has worked to eliminate barriers and create ladders of opportunity for low-income children and families, most of whom—because of racial disparities between who is most often affected by poverty in our country—are residents of color. We have done programs in education to change particular gaps and outcomes, in mental health to change trajectories, in family asset-building and workforce/career development to create ladders of opportunity, in helping statistically at-risk youth and families and youth aging out of the foster care system and in access to, and improved outcomes in, healthcare.
Our innovative models reach 300,000 children and families annually across Massachusetts. Still, there are many more gaps and issues to address, and we look forward to continuing our process to address pressing needs as we also work to deepen and broaden the impact our existing organizations are having for Boston and Massachusetts residents.
Once you have identified non-profits that can meet a community’s need, what is the process for bringing them together and is there a typical timeframe for that process?
While there have been faster cycles in times of emergency (e.g., FoodConnect and EveryoneOn in the Bay Area in the wake of the pandemic last year), GreenLight typically takes a year to go from gap/issue/metric to bringing a proven and innovative model to address that gap in a city—and then it takes years to grow that model and change outcomes substantially over time at scale. The reason is that we want to make sure that the model fits the ecosystem and has all the right partnerships and relationships to be a success. And we want to make sure that we have community and resident feedback so that this is truly community-driven and community-responsive. If you want something to scale and succeed, you have to build deep roots over time, and this is what GreenLight seeks to do in its annual process in each city every year.
The gift from MacKenzie Scott and Dan Jewett was a huge validation of GreenLight’s work and effectiveness. What is your vision for the future of the organization?
It was a tremendous honor for GreenLight to be selected by MacKenzie Scott and Dan Jewett as one of the grantees in their most recent round of grants. It’s also wonderful to start to be recognized nationally for what we do, as we have typically been heads-down delivering for every city, year-after-year-after-year and building this organically city by city by city.
We have a strategic plan for what we want to accomplish over the next 5+ years and beyond. Some of the key pillars of that include:
- Continue to deepen and broaden our impact in all our cities and increasingly impact systems that create barriers so that we can create ladders of opportunity for as many children and families as possible.
- Keep adding new cities and expanding our impact.
- Codify and share our data and experience better to make a positive impact on the field.
- Grow our ecosystem of partnerships and for all of us to help each other grow, learn and improve.
- Continue to grow in centering equity so that we are truly dismantling barriers and creating opportunity for all, including historically marginalized, racially- discriminated-against or under-represented communities—and doing all this the right way.
Doing these things will help us eventually grow to a total of 25 to 30 cities, reach 3 to 5M children and families per year and unlock many, many hundreds of million dollars in follow-on federal, state, “earned-revenue” and other funding avenues for programs that are desperately needed and work (up from our over $150M+ in additional follow-on funding leveraged to date). And we will have built a key piece of infrastructure to enable our country and its residents to make positive, community-driven change year after year after year.