In my 8+ years at GreenLight, I’ve had to learn a lot. I do have an MBA, but most of what I’ve learned has been on the job. And with GreenLight’s roots in the venture capital world, I’ve learned a lot of related nomenclature over the years – gazelles, unicorns, series A, B, angels – and so I chalked “net exporter” up to another term to learn.
The idea that GreenLight would eventually become a net exporter of social innovation from Boston to other communities has been strong and consistent since our earliest days. If I’m being honest, however, I didn’t initially fully understand what it meant or what it would look like.
What I’ve come to learn is that being a net exporter of social innovation simply means exporting more social innovation than you’re importing. It may seem obvious –subtracting the gross number of nonprofit organizations you’ve exported from the gross number you’re importing, gives you the net. (See, I do use that MBA).
When GreenLight started in Boston, it was our only site. We imported organizations into Boston when our diligence revealed they had an innovative approach to addressing an unmet need facing low-income children, youth and families, and had evidence of impact.
By 2012, we had imported seven organizations into Boston that were achieving demonstrable impact on issues ranging from economic mobility to youth aging out of the foster care system. The success GreenLight had in Boston focusing on local needs – the demand side of nonprofit scale – drew national attention and in 2012, we opened our first expansion sites in the San Francisco Bay Area and Philadelphia (thanks to supporters like Bank of America). This was also the moment when GreenLight began exporting Boston social innovation – in addition to importing.
Two of our first four investments in the Bay Area and Philadelphia are organizations that were founded and headquartered in Boston. In 2013, GreenLight supported uAspire to expand to the Bay Area and Year Up to expand to Philadelphia. Today, in 2017, the GreenLight Fund also operates in Cincinnati, Detroit and a sixth community we’ll be announcing soon. Over the next decade, we’ll continue to expand the GreenLight network to dozens of cities across the country.
As a Bostonian, I’m proud that my city is home to some of the nation’s most promising social entrepreneurs and innovators. Between Social Venture Partners and the Social Innovation Forum building the capacity of local innovators to TUGG and Mass Challenge supporting social entrepreneurship, our robust ecosystem continues to deliver promising innovations here in Boston that are poised for replication and scale. These are exactly the kind of organizations GreenLight is looking to fill our pipeline with, and exactly the kind of entrepreneurs who we know will find value in our growing network.
On our journey to becoming a net exporter, my role as Boston executive director is not only to identify unmet needs of our most vulnerable children and families and find the best fit and evidence-based organizations to import, but also ensure that the best of what we have in Boston makes it into our pipeline to get to the communities that need them most. The same is true for all GreenLight executive directors in other sites and the social innovations being built in those communities.
While we’re not a net exporter yet, we’re on our way!
Kate Barrett is the Executive Director of GreenLight Boston. The GreenLight Fund makes investments in direct service, 501(c)3 organizations reaching low-income children, youth and families. Check out the GreenLight Method for more information.