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Nonprofit brings $3.5 million commitment to help Charlotte fight poverty

Dr. Ophelia Garmon-Brown, center, co-chair of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force, spoke as its recommendations were released in March. She was joined by co-chair Dee O'Dell, left, and incoming Leading on Opportunity Implementation Council co-chairs Andrea B. Smith, center-rear, and James E. Ford.
Dr. Ophelia Garmon-Brown, center, co-chair of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force, spoke as its recommendations were released in March. She was joined by co-chair Dee O'Dell, left, and incoming Leading on Opportunity Implementation Council co-chairs Andrea B. Smith, center-rear, and James E. Ford. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

A Boston-based nonprofit group said Wednesday morning it has committed $3.5 million over five years, nearly all of it raised locally, to help lift Charlotte low-income children and families out of poverty.

The work of the GreenLight Fund is expected to complement the work of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force, which announced a series of recommendations in March.

The task force began its work two years ago, after a sobering study by Harvard University and UC-Berkeley. The study of the 50 largest U.S. cities showed that poor children in Charlotte are least likely to escape poverty.

GreenLight has helped tackle similar problems – childhood literacy and college access among them – in Boston, Philadelphia, the San Francisco Bay area, Cincinnati and Detroit. Its affiliated organizations reached 60,000 children and families in 2015 and are expected to help 100,000 this year.

Fund officials say its approach mimics that of the investment world: identify local needs; apply proven solutions; and measure the results.

GreenLight Charlotte will hire its own executive director and name an advisory board. The director and advisors are expected to assess local needs and, in 2018, bring in an innovative nonprofit from elsewhere that can help.

The idea will be to fill gaps in addressing economic mobility rather than duplicate work already underway.

“They have a pretty proven track record of working in other cities with a wide range of activities, all predicated on economic mobility. I think they will complement very nicely the work we’re embarking on,” said James Ford, co-chair of the public-private group charged with implementing the task force’s recommendations.

A key difference, Ford said, is that while the task force works with local resources, GreenLight can draw from outside Charlotte. “There’s enough good work to go around, so we welcome their approach,” he said.

In Boston, GreenLight brought in College Advising Corps to help low-income students enter and complete college. In Philadelphia, it imported the Center for Employment Opportunities, which works with people with criminal convictions who need jobs.

Cofounder Margaret Hall, who teamed with entrepreneur and venture capitalist John Simon to launch GreenLight, said the nonprofit world lacks the connectivity and information flow that helps spread new solutions to old problems in business.

Bank of America, which has funded GreenLight programs in four other cities, helped pique the fund’s interest in Charlotte about two years ago.

Adding to the momentum, Hall said, was “the consensus and the collaborative spirit of the Opportunity Task Force, and then the sheer numbers and interest of local investors who said they wanted us to come to Charlotte.”

Bank of America, Duke Energy, the Leon Levine Foundation and two individuals each contributed $250,000 in funding. Other commitments came from the Duke Endowment, the C.D. Spangler Foundation, Foundation for the Carolinas, Brighthouse Financial, John M. Belk Endowment, Scott and Anne Perper, John and Sue Simon and United Way of Central Carolinas, in addition to gifts from 19 other families.

GreenLight will meet with local funders in Charlotte on Wednesday morning to begin the effort.

Scott Perper, a partner at Charlotte private equity firm Pamlico Capital, said he was introduced to GreenLight cofounder John Simon by a mutual friend. They spent three hours one morning talking in a Boston diner, and Perper invested more time researching the fund’s performance in other cities.

Perper and his wife, Anne, decided to donate to GreenLight Charlotte because of the fund’s leadership and operating model.

“They’ve got a proven track record of expanding the amount of philanthropic dollars that are committed by the community, as well as in having organizations come in that have proven and measurable results,” Perper said. “One of the things I really believe is that the GreenLight Fund is the right organization for this moment of time in Charlotte, given all the work of the Opportunity Task Force and all their incredible ideas.”

Charlotte shares the problem of struggling families with most large U.S. cities, GreenLight says, but local dynamics vary. Hall acknowledges, for instance, that there could be local skepticism of an outside entity.

“We believe that’s fair, and it’s why we raised $3.5 million in Charlotte, because we think we have something to prove to the community,” she said. Once a local director and advisory board are on the ground, she added, “it’s not really us in Boston anymore.”

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender

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