January 14, 2020; Star Tribune
The Boston-based GreenLight Fund, a nonprofit that aims to improve the lives of children and families in urban low-income neighborhoods, is expanding to Minneapolis-St. Paul, its ninth site, after raising $5 million in matching local investment. GreenLight was cofounded in 2004 by Boston venture capitalist John Simon and Margaret Hall, who is GreenLight’s CEO.
GreenLight does not operate like a private foundation, but rather like a national nonprofit. In the Twin Cities, GreenLight will first hire a local site executive director, who will build an advisory council tasked with identifying urgent local needs that are not being met. Then, it will research, vet, and seek to “import” a nonprofit program that GreenLight has employed in its other cities or add a new nonprofit to its portfolio. According to its website, periodically, each GreenLight site identifies an additional nonprofit to join its work.
The Star Tribune reports that 51 Twin Cities investors contributed $50,000 to $500,000 each over five years, a record for GreenLight. Investors include Bank of America, Cargill, Minnesota Vikings, Otto Bremer Trust, and a number of individuals. The investments will pay for salaries for the executive director and a program associate and for program startup expenses, projected to be $800,000.
GreenLight Twin Cities investor Julie Sullivan, president of the University of St. Thomas, told the Star Tribune, “I think sometimes, as we focus on gaps in our own communities, we take an insular approach. This combats the insularity that develops in any community. It provides for a way for perhaps new ideas that are working in other places to gain a foothold here.”
GreenLight says that it evaluates hundreds of nonprofits each year in its quest to find successful programs that demonstrate replicable, measurable solutions. According to its 2018–2019 Portfolio Report, GreenLight had 27 of these “portfolio organizations” serving the eight locations where it operates: Atlanta, Boston, Charlotte, Cincinnati, Detroit, Kansas City, Philadelphia, and the San Francisco Bay Area. The report showed that $19,775,160 had been invested in those nonprofit organizations. GreenLight’s nonprofit partners include the Center for Employment Opportunities, Blueprint Schools Network, and ParentChild+. The complete list of portfolio nonprofits is available here.
The GreenLight Fund shares some information on how the nonprofits are chosen. In a 2018 description of its fifth selection process for the San Francisco Bay Area, GreenLight reported taking the following steps:
- Reviewed its existing portfolio organizations, to see if any might be a good fit
- Spoke with 27 nonprofits to learn about their mission and growth plans
- Conducted in-depth management calls with nine of the 27 to evaluate their “program model, performance management and impact data”
- Held site visits with four nonprofits, meeting with leadership teams, partners, funders, board members, and individuals directly impacted by the services
- Presented two nonprofits to the advisory council to review impact, local fit, and sustainability
After making a final selection in the Bay Area review, GreenLight said it planned to provide financial and other support to the nonprofit as it launched in the new city. Other types of support included assistance with hiring, making connections to key partners, and helping with strategic planning.
GreenLight plans to grow to 12 cities by 2022 and aims to expand to 30 cities by decade’s end. As GreenLight continues its drive to “scale what works,” we will be curious to see how its portfolio nonprofits fare in their new cities.—Catherine Jones