Omar Woodard says it shouldn’t surprise anyone that he works in philanthropy.
Growing up in North Philadelphia, he was a direct beneficiary of the largesse of Stephen Girard: He spent 11 years at and graduated from Girard College, which was founded nearly 170 years ago in one of the greatest acts of American philanthropy.
“Stephen Girard was really the Warren Buffett, the Jeff Bezos, of his time,” Woodard says, acknowledging that Girard personally lent the U.S. government money to fight the war of 1812. When he died, he left a significant portion of his money to the City of Philadelphia to launch a school for low-income white boys; it desegregated in 1968, which opened to doors for Woodard’s eventual enrollment.
“When you’re in a school like that growing up in North Philly, you realize the benefits that accrue to individuals who are beneficiaries of philanthropy,” Woodard says. “It was because of philanthropy and a man who lived in the 1800s that I was able to get a fantastic education,” one that ultimately positioned him to earn scholarships that covered 90 percent of his undergraduate career and a graduate fellowship that covered his master’s degree.
“Philanthropy has really powered the way for me, and been crucial to the personal and professional success I have had,” he says.
So, yes, it is fitting that Woodard is now the executive director of GreenLight Fund’s Philadelphia site. GreenLight Fund was founded 15 years ago in Boston and now has outposts in nine U.S. cities. It works with residents in high-poverty communities to identify their needs, find the best solutions to their needs from around the country, and bring it to their communities for the long-term.
Woodard’s goal is to make a true dent in eliminating poverty here, something other programs have not been able to effectively do. Unlike many of the countless other poverty-relief organizations in the city, GreenLight’s innovation lies in listening to the needs of the community, and then bringing together stakeholders from the public and private sector to import and scale programs with data-backed success.
“The community itself identifies a need, and then GreenLight brings together public and private capital to solve that challenge,” Woodard says.
A gift for pushing government to act
If his name rings a bell, it could be because, yes, he’s the same Omar Woodard who planned to run against Darrell Clarke for City Council last year, only to drop out when he didn’t acquire the necessary number of valid signatures to meet the eligibility requirements.
“Government really is the best vehicle to scale innovation and social change, particularly at the scale of this problem,” he says, acknowledging that that’s what initially drew him to want to run for Council. But Council’s loss—Woodard has no plans to run again—is the city’s gain, as Woodard is said by those who work with him to be particularly gifted at pushing government to act.
When working with government, he applies the basic principles of any successful negotiation. “There are two things that I focus on with GreenLight in terms of how to get government to scale innovation. The first is to identify the business challenge facing government.”
Every government, like any other business, has constrained resources, which drive their prioritization. “And so when I’m thinking about partnering with government, the question is what’s their pain point? What’s the problem they’re trying to solve? And then the second part is how can I work closely with their constituents so that their constituents are pushing the importance of moving forward.”
“We’re not moving forward an agenda that’s ours or special interest groups’,” he says. “We’re amplifying the interest of the constituents that government officials really care most about.”
For example, in 2015, the six-year graduation rate at Community College of Philadelphia (CCP), a public institution, was 17.5 percent, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts. “CCP needed to accelerate persistence and graduation outcomes, especially for first-time students with low incomes, to create more graduates more quickly,” Woodard says.
Recognizing this need, GreenLight Fund provided a $1.1 million investment to introduce and scale Single Stop, a program that now supports more than 21,000 CCP students with “one-stop” resources. This addressed an important business challenge for CCP: The longer it takes to complete a degree, the greater the pressure on the system.
“Addressing a student’s fundamental barriers to completion, like lack of health care, child care, and financial stability, is proven to boost persistence and degree completion,” Woodard says. “Of course it is the right thing to do, but it also creates greater throughput for the community college system that increases both course capacity and the number of CCP graduates.”
A recent evaluation of Single Stop found improved outcomes in every category the program aims to address: semester-to-semester persistence; pass vs. fail grades; and GPA.
Another example of Woodard’s success at catalyzing government action: Most recently, GreenLight Fund’s $600,000 investment in Compass Working Capital and Clarifi scaled a highly evaluated asset-building solution for residents of the Philadelphia Housing Authority.
Before GreenLight’s investment in 2018, there were 100 households in the federally-funded Family Self-Sufficiency Program. In 2021, Woodard says, more than 1,000 households will participate in the program, which captures increased rental payments, helps participants divert them into savings accounts and coaches them on saving to buy a house.
“These systems-change investments can shift taxpayer money and government efforts to programs with proven evidence of impact, and engage residents in high-poverty areas on solutions to the challenges they face in their neighborhoods,” Woodard says.
By partnering with communities, GreenLight roots its arguments with the credibility and the know-how of the constituents that political actors care most about. “We’re not moving forward an agenda that’s ours or special interest groups’,” he says. “We’re amplifying the interest of the constituents that government officials really care most about.”
“We will stay until the job is done”
The pandemic has only highlighted further the importance and power of approaches like GreenLight’s. “Covid doesn’t mean we pivot,” Woodard says. “It means we double down and do exactly what we’ve been doing.”
They have brought five empirically successful programs here that address public housing, public education, public workforce, public health, and the corrections system—the pillars that largely underlie systemic poverty, and are deeply tied to institutional racism. None are pilot programs. “We want to bring a program to Philadelphia that will stay until the job is done, and that has a revenue model that allows it to do so,” Woodard says.
Annually, their programs touch the lives of 6,700 households and individuals.
Since 2013, GreenLight Philadelphia has made $4.2 million in investments, which have leveraged $14 million in public and private philanthropic capital. Each of the models they bring here requires a partnership with a local entity or institution, like Philadelphia Housing Authority or the Department of Corrections.
“We’re focused on scaling innovation in those systems in ways that dramatically accelerate economic mobility in the city,” Woodard says.
Included in the portfolio is Center for Employment Opportunities, which offers comprehensive employment services to men and women with recent criminal convictions. There’s ParentChild+ (formerly Parent Child Home Program), which provides under-resourced families with the skills and tools to help their children thrive.
Year Up’s mission is to close the opportunity divide, by empowering urban young adults with experience and support to reach their potential through professional careers and higher education. There’s the above-mentioned Single Stop, which helps low-income individuals persist through college and achieve financial self-sufficiency and economic mobility by providing access to benefits and services. And that newest addition to their portfolio, Compass Working Capital, which, again, is working with PHA residents to help them save for and invest in their future.
“Covid doesn’t mean we pivot,” Woodard says. “It means we double down and do exactly what we’ve been doing.”
“The partnership between Compass and the PHA would not have happened if not for GreenLight,” says Markita Morris-Louis, chief strategy officer at Compass Working Capital. “Both from the perspective of providing the initial source of funding that allowed us to think about how to scale the work at Philadelphia. But also GreenLight, because of their process, their diligence, and their name recognition, helps us attract additional support to the program.”
“They put their money where their mouth is”
GreenLight does not operate through endowment spending: As a venture philanthropy organization, all of their investment is raised, just as it would be in any venture capital fund. Some of Philly’s most well-known investors, entrepreneurs, and leaders are supporters of GreenLight. There’s Bank of America and TD Bank; Michael Rubin and Saj Cherian of Kynetic; Josh and Rena Kopelman.
“These folks are not just leaders in the region but they put their money where their mouth is and provide not just time but capital to help our portfolio organizations succeed,” Woodard says.
All of the organizations who’ve come here have scaled, and will continue to do so. And if, for example, GreenLight had twice the funding, it could double its portfolio and bring twice as many programs to the city.
“We’ve already seen promising outcomes for families in the area of credit building,” says Morris-Louis. “PHA actually has a number of really strong programs, but we’ve heard from clients and residents who’ve been involved in a number of different programs that Compass’ is the most transformative one they’ve experienced.”
GreenLight does something else unique in Philly: It brings together different sectors to solve problems. Woodard points to the organization’s advisory council, which includes leaders from the school district, government, nonprofits, and business. “They’re all at the same table when usually they’re not,” he says.
Real change towards progress requires hearts and minds, and money. But it also requires leadership. And Woodard, partners say, has a singular gift for that.
“Omar brings this amazing mix of experience and talents and skills from the perspective of someone with lived experience of poverty,” Morris-Louis says. “Being a Black man in America, having his particular experience in philanthropy, and also just being such a critical and nuanced thinker about approaches to service-delivery, to scaling, to finding deep connection to the families and the communities that we want to serve.”
Woodard puts it simply: “I just want to solve the problems that me and my family faced growing up, so hundreds of thousands of other families that look like mine no longer experience the indignity of poverty and marginalization.”
The Citizen is one of 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow the project on Twitter @BrokeInPhilly.Photo courtesy GreenLight Fund