GreenLight’s Philanthropic Venture Fund Opens New Office in Detroit

In 2011, Margaret Hall, co-founder and national executive director of the GreenLight Fund, first made contact with social entrepreneurs in Detroit. She wanted to discuss the idea of her philanthropic venture fund, which invests in nonprofit entities rather than startups, opening an office in the Motor City.

“At the time, the people we talked to said there was a lot of need in the city, but it wasn’t the right time,” Hall recalled. “Since then, Detroit has gone through bankruptcy and a real revitalization is underway. There’s a lot going on. So when we came back five years later, we heard a different message: Detroit is making progress by leaps and bounds, and now we need to make sure the benefits and opportunities extend to the whole community. A rising tide lifts all boats, and we saw that GreenLight could help with that.”

With the backing of 20 local philanthropic investors including Ford, Delphi Foundation, Lear Corporation, Strategic Staffing Solutions, Bank of America, and the Detroit Medical Center, GreenLight aims to transform the lives of Detroiters through an annual process that works with community stakeholders to “identify critical needs; import innovative nonprofit programs that can make a significant, measurable impact on those needs; and galvanize local and national support to help these programs sustain impact and scale,” Hall said. The main goal is to improve economic mobility for the city’s low-income families.

GreenLight provides early-stage funding, help building strategic partnerships with local organizations,  and introductions to key members of the community. It also hires local leadership staff to assist in building the board.

Hall launched the GreenLight Fund more than a decade ago in Boston after a career spent mostly working for nonprofits. “Both my co-founder [John Simon] and I had experienced how hard it is to scale and grow nonprofit ventures,” she said. “We wanted to find and attract social innovators to our cities so they could find service gaps and help create the solutions needed.”

Although Hall wanted to launch the GreenLight Fund in Boston, she and Simon viewed the challenges nonprofits were facing as a national issue. “We wanted to find and spread what’s working much more quickly,” she added.

Detroit is the fifth city to get a GreenLight office; besides Boston, the others are in Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Cincinnati. GreenLight’s portfolio organizations address issues like college access, family economic stability, academic success, criminal recidivism, and youth aging out of foster care.

In 2015, Hall said, GreenLight’s 15 portfolio organizations served 59,000 people in three cities. Programs chosen to be imported to other GreenLight communities include Raising a Reader, Peer Health Exchange, uAspire, Year Up, and Genesys Works. By 2019, GreenLight expects to reach 100,000 low-income people annually through 30 high-impact organizations operating in GreenLight cities across the country.

Now that GreenLight Detroit has raised $3 million—more money upon launch than any other GreenLight city so far—it will start the process of finding a local executive director and soliciting partners to survey the community’s needs. Hall expects to announce the first organization it will fund in early 2017.

What’s especially interesting about GreenLight’s mission is that it doesn’t measure success through the typical startup metrics of customers acquired or units sold. Instead, social impact is the sole currency in which GreenLight trades, Hall said.

“We play the role of a traditional VC firm to nonprofit organizations,” Hall explained. “Where we can, we foster partnerships and engagement. GreenLight is a tool a community can use to organize itself and address critical shortfalls.”

Those who want to keep abreast of GreenLight Detroit’s developments throughout the coming months can sign up for an e-newsletter, Hall said.

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