Insights, News

What If Social Innovations Were as Accessible as iPhones?

Jul 11, 2017



Author: John Simon – Co-Founder, GreenLight Fund

What if you could only buy an iPhone in St. Louis? The idea is preposterous. In the technology world, innovations are accessible everywhere, and every single consumer has access to the best of the best.

When it comes to social issues, however, this is not the case. While some nonprofits, like Teach for America, City Year, YouthBuild and others have reached national scale, there are hundreds more innovative, evidence-driven organizations operating in just a handful of locations.

This is the challenge I presented last month at Harvard’s Center for Public Interest Conference in a TED-style talk with about 300 attendees. I always jump at the opportunity to connect with some of the best and brightest students in the country – and the chance to inspire some of them to build careers in the public sector. Young people, no matter where they attend school, are frequently the ones who can make the most creative things happen.

As a for-profit and nonprofit entrepreneur, I dream big. And in the for-profit world, a big dream with solid execution is enough. But in the nonprofit sector, big dreams – even when combined with solid execution and strong evidence – don’t equate to big scale. For example, at the Steppingstone Foundation, we built a strong, evidence-driven program. We were successful at local fundraising. But when it came time to scale, we struggled to get to 3, 4 or 5 cities. It took too much time to understand the landscape of a new geography, navigate a new set of local investors, and figure our whether our work was even needed in a particular community.

The lived-experience of this challenge led me, along with Margaret Hall, to found the GreenLight Fund. The GreenLight Fund is a network of local sites that help communities match their needs with high-performing nonprofits based anywhere in the country. We do this by running a consistent annual process – in partnership with the local community – to identify service gaps and find the best social innovation in the country prepared to address that particular gap. Through a 9-12 month diligence process, we assess local fit, cultivate key partnerships, and launch one proven organization a year in the community.

To transform seemingly intractable challenges facing low-income children and families, you need more than just a brilliant idea with evidence to back it up. You need a platform through which to scale. GreenLight provides that platform so that our nation’s most promising social entrepreneurs can get take their work beyond those initial couple of cities.

As GreenLight continues to grow its network to include dozens of communities across the country, we look forward to building organizations that will require the leadership of students from Harvard, and other colleges and universities across the country dedicated to a better and more just world.

Watch my talk.


John Simon is the Co-Founder of GreenLight Fund.  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.