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Rhodes Trust 120th Anniversary Reunion

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Monday 28 November, 2022

How to create change - one issue at a time

by John Simon

Seventeen years ago, John Simon (Massachusetts & New College 1984) co-founded The GreenLight Fund to transform the lives of children, young people and families in Boston. The aim was to do one great thing a year to make a difference.

Today, GreenLight is working in 11 cities across America, reaching nearly 500,000 children and families annually with measurably-changed outcomes, with many Rhodes Scholars giving time, skills and resources to make a difference.

Our idea with The GreenLight Fund was to create a new community utility. It’s called GreenLight because every year in every city, driven by that city, we ‘greenlight’ (make happen) some proven programme or model to help change an outcome that the city’s residents desperately want changed and make that the community’s own.

What my co-founder in GreenLight, Margaret Hall, and I saw was that, using this community-driven mechanic, with GreenLight as a catalyst, in 20 years we could help a city address 16 issues (and in 50 years, 40 issues…) and, once proven in Boston and a couple of other cities, we could then create a multi-city network that did this across the country.

Fast forward to today – 17 years later – and in Boston, where we started, we have moved the needle on 13 issues and are reaching 300,000 children and families a year, and this impact in Boston alone is continually growing as our programmes grow and as we add one new impact model a year.

We are now operating in 11, soon to be 13, cities, with the upcoming additions of Chicago and Denver to our network, and we have unlocked in excess of $200M in follow-on governmental, public, earned, or other revenues, enabling us to scale and sustain the things that we have done. So, this impact and change has reached a really large scale – but always in a community-driven way.

There have been all sorts of ripple effects from the work we do. We knew ideas that really worked and scaled and were successful in the for-profit world would then spread all over the country in the US and beyond.

As businesses that served consumer needs grew, they went everywhere. But at the same time, amazing non-profits that were equally game-changing and equally successful might only get to six or seven cities, even after years and years, and even when residents in other cities passionately wanted the impact and change those models offered.

We realised there was a market failure, because cities and residents want change – they want things to be better, they want more ladders to educational and economic opportunity. There were all kinds of issues and unmet needs, all too often rooted in racial inequities, that weren’t moving.

At the same time there were lots and lots of solutions that were incredible, but the solutions weren’t getting to those communities that needed them. In order to make change, GreenLight created what can be viewed as a ‘community collaboration engine’.

We operate at the intersection of several different worlds: the business community; the non-profit community; government and public services; and communities and residents. We pull those communities together to run an annual community-driven process that produces one impact model a year.

At the very heart of this model are questions about communities and residents – what are their priorities, what are the things they need changing? What metrics and outcomes do they want to change each year that might represent the intersection of needs and which of these can our model address? Community needs and community priorities are the start and driving force of every annual cycle.  Then… how do we engage the business community to support us and the non-profit community to partner with us, and the city and the state and the federal government (and/or other key partners)? Often, these partnerships are what provide the funds and the fuel.

GreenLight is such a powerful engine because it is a continuously standing utility, making sure this collaboration process happens year after year after year after year. It is a truly significant repeatable collaboration, with each stakeholder doing one thing over the course of a year and doing it as impactfully as possible.

Collaboration means you can’t necessarily move at light-speed. You need to try as best you can (even if never 100% successfully) to get everybody on board. So that is why we take a year to figure out one thing we’re going to do and make it happen.

We do one thing a year, but the collaboration means that the one thing we do ends up being much deeper-rooted and more sustainable and impactful for the long term. If we tried to do everything, we wouldn’t do anything. We take the long view. If we are willing to run a process that forces choice (one thing per year), in the arc of time it will add up to a whole lot of significant change over a whole bunch of issues.

Every year, we have taken one to two current Rhodes Scholars as collaboration partners and interns working on issues or new cities for us. But we also involve others from the Rhodes community. There is huge scope for the Rhodes community to contribute, collaborate, and be a part of this. There’s no one city I can think of where we don’t have amazing Rhodes Alumni involved in one way or another. With Rhodes Scholars wanting to ‘fight the world’s fight,’ that is a community ready to join us – there’s a ready alignment of values, a ready alignment of interests.

We are doing a ton of collaboration across many elements of a city – but it is small compared with what we could be doing. The big point is that our ‘collaboration engine’ generates community-driven CHANGE.

I hope that more people will want to think about joining that engine, nationally or in one of our cities, to make a big difference eventually (as we continue to grow) to millions of children and families across our country each year, on many, many levels.

GreenLight Fund – Invested in change