April 15, 2012
In Boston, a Fund Seeks Promising Nonprofits to Tackle
Reba Saldanha, for The Chronicle
John Simon (left), co-founder of the GreenLight Fund, meets with representatives of Friends of the Children, a
group that provides 12 years of mentorship to kids at risk of dropping out of school.
By Ben Gose
For the past 15 years, philanthropists have poured money into the national offices of high-
performing charities to help them start operations in new cities.
The GreenLight Fund, in Boston, is also focused on helping the best charities grow, but it
inverts the process. The nine-year-old nonprofit organization first canvasses the city to
uncover Boston’s greatest needs and then scours the country to find growing and proven
charities that can be imported to combat the local problem.
John Simon, a Boston venture capitalist, and Margaret Hall, a veteran consultant to charities
and foundations, co-founded the GreenLight Fund in 2003 with a goal of bringing in just one
charity a year to help improve the lives of inner-city, low-income children and families in
Boston. Nonprofit experts have hailed the approach as a success, and this year GreenLight is
embarking on its first expansion—to the San Francisco Bay Area and Philadelphia.“This is an
innovative concept, and it’s worthy of a close look by other communities,” says Andrew
Hahn, a professor at Brandeis University and director of its Sillerman Center for the
Advancement of Philanthropy, who also serves on the board of GreenLight.
A Reason to Expand
Mr. Simon hit upon the idea for GreenLight while trying to build the Steppingstone
Foundation, a charity that he co-founded in 1990.
Searching for Solutions: One Fund’s Approach to Finding Top Charities
By 1997, Steppingstone, which provides instruction to urban kids in Boston to help them get
into better schools, had earned a strong reputation, and Mr. Simon and his partner began to
expand. But just getting Steppingstone established in two new cities—Hartford and
Philadelphia—nearly exhausted the partners.
Mr. Simon thought about what might prompt the group to expand, yet again, to a city like
A $20,000 planning grant? That wouldn’t be enough.
But what if a benefactor promised to pay for the affiliate’s first-year budget, provide
additional support for another three years, help find a local executive director, and make sure
that school principals, superintendents, and local donors would do their part?
“If somebody had called us and promised that,” Mr. Simon says, “we would have been on the
No one ever did. But Mr. Simon became obsessed with making that promise himself—to
attract some of the nation’s best charities to Boston.
With a staff of just three people in Boston, including Ms. Hall, its executive director,
GreenLight operates unlike any other grant maker. The cycle begins with a GreenLight
selection committee, made up of volunteers, looking deeply at Boston to identify current
needs. GreenLight’s staff then starts a process of several months to identify charities from
outside Boston that work in causes like education, youth development, job training, and
The selection committee helps narrow the list from 20 to just one winner, unveiled at a gala
each September. Together, that event and a second gala in December and a golf tournament
the following June typically raise more than $600,000—all of which goes to the local affiliate
of the newly chosen charity.
Single Stop USA, the newest GreenLight group, which helps low-income families tap into
government benefits, tax credits, and other essential services, received $750,000 from the
two galas—and the forthcoming golf tournament promises even more money.
Thanks to Mr. Simon’s connections and its venture-like approach, GreenLight has been
popular with young entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and investors. “We’re unlocking new
dollars from these folks who aren’t typically engaged in low-income communities,” Mr.
Many of the talented, business-savvy donors who attend the galas also become board
members, advisers, and volunteers to the incoming charities.
By all accounts, the six organizations that GreenLight has brought to Boston are thriving.
(See box on Page 24.)
Raising a Reader, a charity founded in Silicon Valley that distributes books to low-income
families and helps parents learn how to read with children, started its Massachusetts affiliate
in 2006 after winning that year’s GreenLight competition.
Donna DiFillippo, the charity’s executive director, worked alone out of donated office space
at the Chelsea library that first year on a budget of less than $250,000. Now the affiliate has
10 full-time employees, 10 part-time staff members, and a budget that is expected to hit $1.7-
million next year.
Raising a Reader still has four board members who got to know the charity through
GreenLight events during that first year. And even today, the halo of GreenLight’s support
helps the charity find additional donors.
“It’s a blue ribbon,” Mr. DiFillippo says. “In Boston, if you’re a GreenLight program, people
know who you are.”
A Promising Approach
Vanessa Kirsch, founder and managing director of New Profit, a venture-philanthropy fund
in Boston, consulted with Mr. Simon a decade ago as he was shaping GreenLight. She says
GreenLight’s growth holds the promise of helping outstanding charities expand more
“Unlike in the for-profit sector, where the best ideas tend to spread quickly to meet consumer
demand, what we see so often in the nonprofit sector is that proven solutions to social
problems fail to scale efficiently and effectively to reach those in need,” Ms. Kirsch says.
“GreenLight’s model gets to the heart of this problem.”
Mr. Simon and his wife, Susan, have a donor-advised fund at the Boston Foundation, but the
majority of the couple’s giving goes to support GreenLight. Though he declines to say how
much they have given to GreenLight, he does note that they fully cover the operating costs of
the Boston office.
Spurred by Rejection
GreenLight isn’t the only fund with a formal process for tapping into outside innovators.
Indianapolis’s Mind Trust, for example, uses a venture fund to lure groups that are doing a
good job of improving education. But such efforts remain rare.
“There’s been a lot of good work to strengthen the national hubs of organizations, but
historically there’s been less work around the spokes,” Mr. Simon says. “At GreenLight, we’re
all about strengthening those spokes.”
In 2010, GreenLight sought a $5-million grant in the first competition run by the federal
Social Innovation Fund, in the hope that it could operate GreenLight projects with help from
eight community foundations.
The proposal wasn’t chosen, and the judges said a main concern was that GreenLight hadn’t
demonstrated that it could operate in multiple cities.
The rejection “was a great spur for GreenLight to say, 'Let’s try this expansion thing out,’”
says Casey Johnson, the newly hired executive director of GreenLight Bay Area.
Bank of America Charitable Foundation made a $1-million grant to help cover start-up costs
at the two new sites, and Mr. Simon also put up substantial money.
The GreenLight approach isn’t expensive: Mr. Simon says the new offices will operate for
now with just one full-time employee. He hopes to be in 10 to 20 cities within the next
“Just imagine what the country would look like if 20 major metropolitan areas were doing
what we’re doing in Boston,” Mr. Simon says. “Imagine how much better off you might be if
you were a child born into tough circumstances.”
Those who know Mr. Simon don’t doubt that he can pull it off. He organized KEEN (Kids
Enjoy Exercise Now), a program that teaches tennis to kids with disabilities, while a Rhodes
scholar in England in the 1980s. The charity now has more than 10 chapters in England and
the United States.
Mr. Simon joined a private-equity fund after returning to America but broke away at age 28
to found UroMed, a medical-device company that made him a fortune. He is now a managing
director at General Catalyst Partners, a venture-capital fund that manages $2.5-billion.
William Schnoor, a corporate lawyer who has made a donation at every GreenLight fund-
raising gala since its founding, says Mr. Simon identified a “big hole in the landscape” and
has done a strong job of carrying out his idea.
“John has a combination of great imagination and vision, coupled with very practical and
effective hands-on leadership,” Mr. Schnoor says. “But all of that wouldn’t be possible
without an energy level that’s extremely high.”
As GreenLight expands, it will have to navigate the same wariness among existing charities
that comes up periodically in Boston.
“That’s clearly been the first response of people who have some nerves about the model,” says
Matt Joyce, executive director of GreenLight Philadelphia.
“Is GreenLight just creating a pipeline of new organizations that are going to compete for the
same funding as existing organizations?”
Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, which awarded GreenLight a $400,000
grant in 2005, says concerns about too many charities chasing too few dollars are legitimate,
but he adds that new charities doing good work should always be welcomed.
“You don’t want to cut off the air supply of new ideas, whether they’re homegrown or
imported via GreenLight,” Mr. Grogan says.
Fight for Resources
The Bay Area and Philadelphia affiliates also must figure out how to win the strong support
from individuals that GreenLight receives in Boston.
The Philadelphia location has secured $800,000 from foundations, including a $500,000
grant from the William Penn Foundation. Federal help is also possible—GreenLight has
pitched another grant request to the Social Innovation Fund.
But neither new site has won big commitments from individuals yet. “It’s a hard model to
explain in a tagline,” Ms. Hall acknowledges.
Mr. Simon says friends in the Bay Area have asked him what charities GreenLight will bring
to the region.
“I don’t know,” Mr. Simon tells them. “All I can tell you is, we’ll run an amazing annual
process, just like we have in Boston.”