A Boston-based community organization called GreenLight Fund, which says its model is to root itself in one city and tackle major societal issues one by one, has chosen Newark to be the 11th city in its network.
The exact problems in Newark that GreenLight will choose to address are not yet clear, and that’s the point: Once GreenLight establishes the framework, Newark residents will choose the direction, according to the organization. Then he will find an organization or company that is already dealing with this particular problem elsewhere and import this program to Newark.
The focus is on community needs that are not being addressed by city and state governments and the philanthropic community already in place in the city.
“Our day job is to figure out what’s the one thing that’s not being done because everyone has a day job and to make that thing happen,” said John Simon, a venture capitalist. who co-founded GreenLight and is its Chairman of the Board.
The initiative, called GreenLight Greater Newark, already has big backers. Before embarking on a new city, GreenLight raises funds to help fund the first four initiatives. The organization successfully raised $6 million for the Newark Fund, its largest fundraiser to date, from more than 60 donors, including Newark and New Jersey staples like Rutgers University, Prudential, the New Jersey Devils and the New York Giants and great philanthropists. like MacKenzie Scott.
With the money raised, GreenLight announced Wednesday that it is beginning a five-year cycle that includes addressing four systemic issues, one per year.
But first, the band will spend a year building the framework. GreenLight said it is in the final stages of interviewing candidates for the position of executive director of GreenLight Greater Newark, someone who has been involved in the community and will be on staff to guide the process. After that, the executive director will work to put together a “selection advisory board,” Simon said, which will come from Newark’s nonprofit and community leaders as well as residents and others who live or work in the area. the city.
Once these two pieces are in place, the group members will begin what they call their annual process. They will spend the first three months identifying up to 20 simmering issues in the city. They’ll spend the next three months narrowing those issues down to three or four finalists, and they’ll spend the next three months trying to find programs in other cities across the country that already address those issues.
Finally, the last step is that the committee and the director will choose a problem-solution pair to focus on for the whole year. They will work to import this program, which could be run by an organization based in San Diego, Seattle, or Tampa, and award that organization a grant worth $600,000 to $800,000 to have their program run in Newark.
For example, GreenLight Boston, where GreenLight Fund started, created a year-long organization called Youth Villages LifeSet, which helps children coming out of the foster care system grow into independent adults. In the San Francisco Bay Area, food donations during the pandemic weren’t reaching families in need, so GreenLight last year partnered with Food Connect, a Philadelphia-based organization that helps families hungry to access surplus food. And in Philadelphia, GreenLight has partnered with Boston-based Compass Working Capital, which runs a program that helps low-income families build wealth.
Then the whole cycle of identifying a systemic problem and identifying a solution will begin again for the following year, focusing on a new problem while the first solution continues to grow and hopefully s installs permanently. After the fourth cycle, which will take place at the end of the fifth year, GreenLight generally tries to raise another fund, replace volunteers and staff who may have left, and tackle four other issues over the course of the next five years.
Simon said GreenLight essentially functions as a “community Swiss army knife”.
Founded 16 years ago, there are GreenLight chapters in 10 other cities: Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Charlotte, Cincinatti, Detroit, Kansas City, Philadelphia and the Bay Area. Newark is the 11th site. Chicago and Denver are next, Simon said.
The story of how GreenLight landed in Newark began in 2019, when the management team was in Baltimore, setting up this launch. Simon, a Harvard graduate and Rhodes Scholar, accepts other Rhodes Scholars as interns. Jordan Thomas, a graduate of Newark’s University High School and Princeton University and the Newark School System’s first Rhodes Scholar, made Simon promise to watch Newark once they complete setting up the Baltimore launch. .
Simon agreed. With just under 300,000 residents, Newark was a bit small for GreenLight but met its criteria in other ways.
First and foremost, the city has huge poverty and equity needs, which Simon says is attractive for an organization looking to have the most impact. Beyond that, the city has what Simon called “a civic spirit” — does the city want to move in the right direction? And, Simon said, GreenLight has found partners in Mayor Ras Baraka, the state government and the Newark school system.
“We have to feel that there are pillar institutions that we can collaborate with,” Simon said. “Newark, obviously, is an ace in all of those categories. And the more you get to know Newark, the more you get that feeling.
“I think it’s the perfect balance between scale and intimacy,” Thomas added. “And it’s also a struggling city.”
Now Thomas, who is pursuing a joint law and business degree at Yale Law School and Harvard Business School, is at the forefront of the Newark Emerging Leaders Initiative, which is a panel of young Newark leaders in 20s who have all donated to the GreenLight Greater Newark fund and who will advise and weigh in on the selection process and may work for the initiatives that are ultimately chosen. Newark is the first GreenLight city to have such an emerging leadership program, and Simon said he hopes to integrate it into cities in the future.
“We’ve seen this gap that we don’t always engage youth leadership,” said Thomas, who spoke passionately about his commitment to Newark despite his prestigious college pursuits elsewhere. “There is a whole ecosystem of young professionals who are extremely passionate about making a difference in their city.”
Speaking at Wednesday’s virtual launch of the Newark Fund, Baraka said he was “delighted to hear that the GreenLight Fund is committed to truly listening to the voices of the community as they come into Newark and make decisions about community investment”.
“We’re going to hold you accountable to that promise,” he said.
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Josh Solomon can be reached at [email protected].