Omar Woodard, Executive Director, GreenLight Fund, Philadelphia
“We need national, statewide, and regional funders to come together to rethink how we address poverty in urban and rural areas—how do we, as philanthropy, nudge policymakers to make lived experience more central to policies?”
What is the mission of your foundation and how does addressing economic equity and opportunity fit in?
The mission of the GreenLight Fund is to help transform the lives of children, youth and families in high-poverty urban areas by creating local infrastructure and a consistent annual process to:
- Identify critical needs;
- Import innovative, entrepreneurial programs that can have a significant, measurable impact; and
- Galvanize local support to help programs reach and sustain impact in the new city.
We center our work on the needs and voices of the communities we serve. We work to transform lives, and this can’t be done one life at a time. The scale of the problem of economic inequity is huge. In Philadelphia there are 400,000 households experiencing poverty, including 130,000 children. Addressing this takes more than a project run over the course of a year.
We align partners—public, private, non-profit—around changing the policies and actions that perpetuate inequity. We bring to scale what works, based on evidence of impact, and we leverage funding—translating our $4.2 million investment into $19 million through partner funding. And in all of this, we are modeling to local and state government that it is possible to partner with other entities that know what works and make a difference.
How has COVID-19 and the current public outcry for racial justice and structural racism reforms impacted your grantmaking? How are you shifting your strategies to meet this moment?
COVID has made us more nuanced and smarter. It’s not that we’ve shifted strategies, but we are becoming more race conscious and race explicit. We’re working to disaggregate and hone the work. In Philadelphia, 55% of the population is comprised of people of color. But how racism plays out is affected by the particulars: generation, immigration, whether a person is Hispanic, Puerto Rican. It’s about the nuances of how poverty impacts and is experienced by different communities.
We’re asking different, more specific questions, elevating curiosity, listening, not making assumptions. We hear and follow. We need to make sure that we’re understanding which issues are the right issues in a community and which solutions are the best fit. It can be uncomfortable, but as long as our work is rooted in authentic experience, then we have a good chance of meaningfully addressing the issues.
We’ve also doubled down on our work of elevating the lived experience with an Impact Advisory Council. This is made up of individuals who have gone through GreenLight funded programs. They are helping shape our agenda and how we talk about the issues.
Finally, we’ve been shifting our focus, thinking about how to go up-stream—investing in approaches that make the work of existing partners easier. For example, scaling prison education programs, so that our partners placing former inmates in the labor market can help them secure positions earning more than minimum wage.
What do you see as the big barriers you’re trying to overcome in your work?
One barrier is the lack of coordination and alignment across local, state, federal, and non-profit entities working to address poverty. There are many boats out there, all rowing in different directions. Then there are additional barriers outside of Philadelphia‘s control—state funding for education and housing, for example—structures of government that fund core needs and perpetuate inequity. Finally, getting Philadelphia to focus on the issue of how government creates revenues to solve challenges, and building an understanding that the current model precludes meaningfully addressing poverty.
As you think through your portfolio/foundation’s work, what has been some of the work that you have been most proud of?
There are three sectors of philanthropy: basic needs, seed/pilot funding, and growing what works. We focus on the latter. And in doing so, we have shifted millions of dollars in government funding to programs with a proven impact.
One example: in 2013 we started working with the Community College of Philadelphia. At that time, 20% of students were taking six years to complete their degrees. We listened to the students, and in partnership with the College, brought Single Stop to Philadelphia—initially funding them for $1.1 million over 5 years. They worked with the College to implement benefits screening and case management to ensure that students were getting the supports needed.
Seven years later, over 20,000 students have been screened; they have drawn down $21 million in cash and non-cash benefits; and the students screened have had higher GPAs and credit completion rates. Now, the College has absorbed Single Stop. It has become part of their model. At Orientation, every student is screened. This type of system adoption is the ultimate form of sustainability.
How does being a member of Economic Opportunity Funders help you achieve your goals?
Being a place-based funder, EOF brings a national perspective to my work. It broadens my aperture of what’s trending—those macro issues that impact Philadelphia. I use it for generative discussions that help me see what’s around the corner. It helps me be more thoughtful and connects me with smart organizations funding transformative work.
Do you have any questions/issues on which you’d like to engage your funder colleagues? What keeps you up at night?
We need national, statewide, and regional funders to come together to rethink how we address poverty in urban and rural areas—how do we, as philanthropy, nudge policymakers to make lived experience more central to policies? And we need to think differently about resource allocation. How do we ensure taxes are deployed in the best way possible? How could we redirect trillions of tax-funded dollars to the best use? We need to be designing interventions and strategies at the scale of the problem, and we need all our best thinkers on board to figure out how.
Any useful resources to share with funder colleagues?
I always encourage my funder colleagues to read the Kerner Commission report from 1968. It is a good historical record and framework for what is necessary to address the issues we are experiencing today.
Thank you so much Omar for your time and support of our network!
This interview was completed by Sarah Griffiths, consultant to Economic Opportunity Funders.
Note: As of February 9, 2021 Omar is no longer with the GreenLight Fund. He has joined Results for America as Vice President, where he will advise state and local governments on shifting public dollars to programs that work, and help communities across the U.S. implement collaborative approaches using data and evidence.