Insights, News

The GreenLight Method: The Bay’s Fifth Selection Process

Nov 5, 2018

San Francisco Bay Area


By: Stacie Mills, Associate, GreenLight Fund Bay Area


To achieve GreenLight’s mission to transform the lives of children, youth and families in high-poverty urban areas by creating local infrastructure, we prioritize identifying critical needs in the communities we serve.

GreenLight has been serving the Bay Area for six years, completing five selection cycles. This means we have imported five organizations with proven methods to the Bay. Since the beginning, GreenLight has applied the GreenLight Methoda five-part process focusing on making our investments where they will make the most impact. We measure the growth and effectiveness of our investments and share that information with investors, partners and the local community. As a result, Bay Area investments have a greater impact on the critical underlying issues confronting our communities.



There’s just one Bay Area – but with a multitude of ethnicities, incomes and needs. Because the Bay Area is vast and complex, GreenLight rotates selection cycles between the high-need cities of Oakland, San Jose and San Francisco – with the ultimate intention of an investment anchored in one city quickly scaling throughout the Bay Area.

Our fifth selection cycle focused on San Jose, the largest city in Northern California. Deemed the heart of Silicon Valley, San Jose is the cultural and political center of the South Bay offering myriad languages, industry employment and educational facilities ranging from 19 school districts and seven universities and colleges. Despite these impressive attributes, “inequality is extreme” with a significant rise in basic living expenses, growing gaps between affordable housing and living wage work, lack of educational access and overall findings of poor mental wellness of its community.



We began our fifth selection process by performing a needs assessment. This is an extensive and methodical process for determining the assets and gaps in a community. The goal is to understand the current landscape and address the desired conditions of the community. We researched various state-funded systems and reviewed city service reports and privately funded impact reports, to name just a few. From there, we identified several gaps in services that were creating barriers within the city.

Then, we went to the community. Our Executive Director, Kate Schwass, spoke to countless community-engaged stakeholders, some of which sit on our Selection Advisory Council. In speaking to these stakeholders, we collected informed data on current assets and critical needs within San Jose. From this data, we identified four main issue areas: family mental health/social-emotional learning, early math skills, youth homelessness and college readiness. With the help from our Selection Advisory Council, we determined the greatest needs in San Jose with the least attention from local organizations focused on youth homelessness and family mental health/social-emotional learning.

There are certainly significant community needs that do not appear above (affordable housing to name one!). Due to the opportunity for change through GreenLight’s specific model, certain gaps and community needs are not always as viable for investment.


Next, we built a pipeline of organizations demonstrating impactful and sustainable approaches. At GreenLight, we have an exemplary portfolio of organizationsWe began our search within our portfolio and broadened our quest across the nation for models with the potential to replicate and fill the gaps in San Jose.

We conducted 27 introductory calls to familiarize organizations with our method and gained a deeper understanding of their missions and future expansion plans. From there, we pared down this list and performed nine very in-depth management team calls during which each organization detailed its program model, performance management and impact data.

As outlined above, each issue area is entangled with intricacies affecting each community differently. We needed to ensure each organization could be as effective in San Jose as in its other cities/states.  We looked deeply at data and impact reports to guarantee each solution was replicable and effective while also being responsive to the nuances of San Jose.

Meanwhile, Kate went back into the field. She spoke to local nonprofits and funders associated with our issue areas. These conversations supported our analysis and provided a better understanding of the conditions necessary for success in San Jose. We also spoke with potential partners to better understand how each organization operated (or could potentially operate) and if their models would be at all duplicative to work already been done on the ground.

With the assistance of our Selection Advisory Council, we narrowed our search to four organizations and performed site visits to better understand how each organization functioned. We met with leadership teams, organizational partners, funders and board members. Most importantly, we had conversations with the individuals directly impacted by these services – about what worked and what didn’t. This process helped our team better assess how an investment would work in San Jose and how organization leaders were thinking about implementation, scale and impact in a different region.

At the end of it all, we chose two organizations to present in front of our Selection Advisory Council. These two organizations encompassed our ultimate issue area of Social-Emotional Learning.


Social-Emotional Learning: Social-emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, build positive relationships and make responsible decisions. Studies find that preschool children are three times as likely to be expelled from school for disruptive or unsafe behaviors as their K–12 counterparts because they are not taught the skills necessary to understand emotions and reactions. An ASR Santa Clara County School Readiness Assessment reports, more than half of kindergarteners are not prepared for school success and students from neighborhoods with lower socio-economic status are least likely to be ready for kindergarten.  Studies show low-income children need at least two to three “quality markers” (e.g. teacher assistance, parent engagement) to be successful in the classroom and a majority of students do not have access to these imperative resources.



When selecting an investment, GreenLight often approaches the Selection Advisory Council with three main considerations:


Local Fit


Organizations “stick” because they generate net social benefits and create the amount of support necessary from key stakeholders and partnerships either immediately, or over a short period of time. In the Bay, initial buy-in is valuable. Defining local fit and overall success early on in the process will determine whether the organization will make an impact and close the gaps. Our Selection Advisory Council understands our method and is determined to help us make the right fit for the community.

On September 25, we selected our fifth investment to launch in January 2019. GreenLight will accelerate the organization’s immediate launch through $600,000 in start-up capital and help facilitate three major partnerships with the organization in San Jose. Like a traditional venture investor, GreenLight will be an active partner by supporting local hiring, serving on their local advisory board, advising on strategic planning and deepening connections to local partners and funders. GreenLight will help this organization continue to grow in San Jose and throughout the Bay Area while achieving the highest fidelity to their model and creating sustainable impact.  Stay tuned for the official announcement of our selection in December!


Our work is not done once a selection is made. GreenLight prides itself on performance management and evaluation. Our goal for our portfolio organizations is to achieve equivalent or stronger results than their measured impact in other locations. To track an organization’s progress toward program results and outcomes, GreenLight asks the following:

  • The organization develops key indicators that both parties agree upon and monitor on a semi-annual basis to assess ongoing program effectiveness in San Jose.
  • The organization reports results on key agreed-upon indicators regularly
  • The organization will share the results of any third-party program evaluations of interim and long-term outcomes conducted nationally and at other sites as we often invest in the same organizations at various GreenLight sites.


I’m inspired daily by the work we do in the Bay Area and support organizations building a culture of continuous improvement. Our method works and it is proven! In the Bay, we will continue to support leaders, changemakers and organizations that seek to empower communities who are left behind or excluded from economic mobility. As the Bay’s founding Executive Director once said, “GreenLight doesn’t just invest in nonprofits, we invest in people who can deliver tremendous outcomes for our community time and time again. This is GreenLight.”