White House's Jonathan Greenblatt gives keynote at symposium co-sponsored by NYU Law students

Social entrepreneur Jonathan Greenblatt appeared as the keynote speaker to cap off the NYU Social Innovation Symposium on February 10. Greenblatt, special assistant to the president and director of the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, was interviewed by Spencer Ante, deputy bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal’s New York corporate bureau, at the final session of the all-day event, co-sponsored by NYU Law’s Law and Social Entrepreneurship Association, the Wagner School of Public Service’s Bridge, and the Stern School of Business’s Social Enterprise Association.

Barack Obama created the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation in 2009 to promote service, increase investment in innovative community solutions, and develop new models of public-private partnerships. Greenblatt, the co-founder of socially minded Ethos Water, former CEO of GOOD Worldwide, and a past senior executive at Starbucks, said, “I’d been fortunate to have a series of experiences in business where business and public service intertwined,” and summed up his office’s mission as “elevating community solutions.”

In seeking new approaches to social and economic problems, Greenblatt said, Obama “thinks the answers are already out there, taking place in communities and neighborhoods and localities where ordinary people, regardless of their politics, connect through faith-based institutions or non-profits or schools or civic organizations. They get things done. He wanted to take that idea and bring it into the White House. My job and the work of our office is how do we make that agenda come alive..., to try to identify what’s working out across the country.... How do we encourage the right set of practices from the bottom up, instead of creating new programs top-down?”

Greenblatt focuses on tying his office’s goals to Obama’s agenda of creating jobs, driving economic recovery, and strengthening civic life through expanded opportunity: “We will measure success in terms of how are we contributing to that.... The game is changing, and to drive shareholder value you have to take a broader, more inclusive view of your role as a steward in our society.... There are more and more people who realize we can’t be successful if all we try to do is drive higher EPS [earnings per share]. That may create benefit in the most narrow sense of the term, like in the next financial quarter, but certainly not over the long haul.”

He mentioned the $50 million Social Innovation Fund, designated as growth capital for high-impact nonprofits, as emblematic of the office’s efforts: “We don’t want to create programs, we want to cultivate practices.... We provide capital, and our intermediaries come to us and say, ‘We can match that capital three to one,’ so our $50 million generates $200 million.... In the same way you think about an ROI for a venture fund, they think about an ROI for their philanthropy fund.... They invest it in really interesting, innovative, fantastic nonprofits, so there are great organizations across the country that we’re supporting through the Social Innovation Fund that are driving exponential impact in their localities.”

Greenblatt spends a lot of time thinking about how to unlock institutional capital in the venture philanthropy field. “Increasingly you see nonprofits with earned income models, sustainable economic strategies. You see nonprofits who are getting on that seam between margin and mission, so we want to make it easier for for-profit investors, the money managers, to deploy capital to those organizations.... It’s not for us to say this is where the next startup should be pointed. It’s for us to create the conditions in which we can encourage entrepreneurship and innovation.”

Posted on February 17, 2012