Scaling Community Impact: Q&A with GreenLight Philadelphia

This April, the GreenLight Fund selected its first two organizations to help expand to Philadelphia – Single Stop USA and Year Up. GreenLight’s model, which began in Boston in 2004, is designed to identify key local needs in the cities where it operates, and then look nationally to find organizations with unique track records of success addressing the same issues in other cities. Once selected, GreenLight funds and supports the organization to get started in the community and rapidly scale. GreenLight has its roots in the entrepreneurial and venture capital sectors, and runs a VC-style diligence, selection, and portfolio support process designed to quickly help great organizations make impact in their cities. GreenLight launched its first expansion sites in the Bay Area and Philadelphia in 2012. We recently spoke to several people involved in the Philadelphia selection process:

Matt Joyce is the executive director of GreenLight Philadelphia.

The Center: Describe your process of identifying the issues and organizations that GreenLight ultimately decided to focus on – particularly starting in a new city.

We began by putting together an outstanding selection advisory council (SAC) last spring to help provide key insights on issues and opportunities to focus on in Philadelphia and guide our selection process. The SAC has representation from private, nonprofit, and philanthropic sectors and gives us a diverse set of perspectives on the city. With the SAC’s help, we looked at research and data on Philadelphia and talked to dozens of leaders to understand where people believed there was room for new ideas and innovation. Ultimately, we landed on older youth – and particularly college persistence and connections to the workforce. These are both areas where the right programs can leverage some of the great resources that already exist within our colleges and employers in the city and help make sure talented young people have the support to complete their education and transition into meaningful jobs.

SingleStop 2

Image provided by Single Stop USA.

The Center: Can you tell us about Single Stop and its model?

MJ: Single Stop is designed to leverage existing resources to help students persist in community college. Thirty-two percent of Philadelphia high school students that enter college enroll at the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP). It’s a critical resource for the city, and its capacity to support students in persisting through college is key to fostering an educated, talented workforce in Philadelphia.

There are many challenges facing community college students that make it difficult to persist through school, but according to a study by MDRC, a primary driver is finances. In a random assignment study, MDRC found that students who were provided an average additional income of $1,133 per year (up to $2,000) re-enrolled the next semester at rates 30% higher than their peers.

Single Stop has built an innovative model, partnering with community colleges to help students obtain the financial resources necessary to persist through college. The program supplements student income by connecting them with tax credits, benefits, and supports for which the students are already eligible. Single Stop has found that by combining technology, enrollment support, tax preparation, and counseling, it has been able to help students access an average of nearly $2,000 per year to help ease the financial burden of post-secondary education; in doing so, it has helped increase persistence rates at 15 colleges across seven states. We believe that Single Stop can match— and even improve upon— that success in Philadelphia. They have built an outstanding partnership with CCP, which will help them quickly integrate and grow, and the model fit squarely within the Mayor’s goal to double to number of Philadelphia residents with a college degree.

Image provided by Single Stop.

Image provided by Single Stop.

The Center: Can you also talk about Year Up’s model?

MJ: Year Up has been a national leader in preparing disconnected young adults for career-trajectory work for over a decade. The organization’s model is a one-year intensive training program, including six months of curriculum and a six-month internship that is designed to give low-income young people the marketable skills and opportunities necessary to move into the middle class. The demand for this work is clearly present in Philadelphia, and we believe that Year Up can be uniquely successful here for several reasons:

  • Year Up has national partnerships with hundreds of employers across the country. Many of these partners have a major presence or headquarters in Philadelphia – including businesses like Comcast and Bank of America.
  • Year Up plans for aggressive growth in Philadelphia. This growth is possible because of a unique revenue model that relies minimally on philanthropic income after the initial growth period. At maturity, Year Up’s income comes primarily from the employers, who pay the program to host trained interns. In addition, Year Up partners with two-year colleges to provide the hard skills training, which defrays its costs and ensures that students leave the program with stackable credit toward an associate’s degree.
  • Year Up has produced some of the strongest evaluation results in its field. The organization recently completed a randomized control trial, revealing that its students earned 30% more than comparable students outside the program. Year Up’s work in Philadelphia presents an additional opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of this work on a larger scale.

Josh Kopelman is the Managing Partner at First Round Capital and the Co-Chair of GreenLight Philadelphia’s selection advisory council.

The Center: Why did you decide to get involved with GreenLight?

GreenLight resonates closely with my commitment to improving the culture of innovation in Philadelphia. First Round Capital has maintained its headquarters in Greater Philadelphia since our founding – and recently moved into the city itself. While we are based in Philly, we consider and support companies from across the country and internationally. This broad focus allows us to invest in what we believe to be the best new ventures that meet key market demands. The GreenLight Fund believes the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors should not operate any differently.

The organizations we selected in this cycle share several common traits – strong use of data and evaluation, business models that combine resources from a variety of sectors to support growth and sustainability, the capacity to attract national funding and talent to Philadelphia, and track records of successfully implementing their programs in multiple cities. The presence of these organizations has the potential to move the entire sector toward better measurement of performance and more ambitious goals for growth.

Anna Guarneri is with the William Penn Foundation and a member of the selection advisory council.

The Center: Tell us about William Penn’s involvement with GreenLight.  How does this model connect with the Foundation’s work?

William Penn made a founding investment in GreenLight Philadelphia in 2011. We were initially interested in GreenLight’s ability to build local capacity to implement evidence-based models from around the country.  It’s been exciting to watch them advance that agenda through investments in Single Stop and Year Up, two great organizations that will support low-income students on their path to success.  We have also been excited by GreenLight’s ability to bring new financial resources to the table in Philadelphia – through their national corporate relationships and the federal Social Innovation Fund and locally through their growing base of entrepreneurial donors.  We believe that it is important to build support beyond traditional philanthropy and the public sector to address the critical needs of our young people, and to engage organizations with successful track records in addressing those needs.

Farah Jimenez is the President and CEO of People’s Emergency Center and a member of the SAC.

The Center: From the perspective of a nonprofit leader and innovator in Philadelphia, how do you view GreenLight’s model?

It’s one thing to build an organization that can serve a community.  It’s quite another to build an organization that can serve a nation.  GreenLight invests in nonprofits that not only demonstrate localized impact, but also evidence an ability to scale their programs so as to help solve problems in other communities – communities like Philadelphia.  I was really impressed by all the applicants we evaluated as part of the selection process.  And I couldn’t be more delighted to welcome Year Up and Single Stop to Philadelphia.  Both groups are filling real needs, delivering social innovation, and building upon – rather than duplicating – efforts already being made by great local nonprofits.  As a resident, I look forward to the impact they will deliver to Philadelphia.  And, as a nonprofit CEO, I look forward to learning from these high-performing national nonprofits.

For donors and others who are interested in the GreenLight approach and want to learn more or get involved:

GreenLight has three locations in the United States: Boston, San Francisco Bay Area, and Philadelphia. There are opportunities to join its selection advisory council as well as local boards of its portfolio organizations. To learn more about getting involved in Philadelphia, contact Matt Joyce ( To learn more about getting involved nationally, contact Sarah Lassonde (