Raised in Boston’s Chestnut Hill/Brookline neighborhood, John Simon graduated from Harvard and earned a Rhodes Scholarship, but his mind and heart have always been focused on helping others. Since his early twenties, he’s been an active volunteer, fearless leader, and social innovator, touching lives and building successful organizations around the world.
When it comes to building an effective enthusiastic nonprofit board, John Simon is the go-to guy for expert advice. So, on a sunny Wednesday in Boston’s seaport district, Mr. Simon and I met for a fascinating Q&A chat about importing ideas, taking risks, and why you don’t have to be über experienced to land a leading seat on a nonprofit board.
A FEW HIGHLIGHTS OF JOHN’S CAREER
Started out volunteering with the Special Olympics during his undergraduate schooling
In his early twenties, John founded Kids Enjoy Exercise Now (KEEN) in Oxford England, which is still thriving today. KEEN now involves thousands of participants in chapters across England & the US.
In 1990, at age 28, John founded Uromed: a for profit medical device company.
That same year, he started his second nonprofit, The Steppingstone Foundation, with Michael Danziger and NYC’s Prep for Prep founder Gary Simmons.
In 2000, he co-founded General Catalyst Partners with three other high school friends.
In 2003, John co-founded the GreenLight Fund with Executive Director Margaret Hall. GreenLight, often categorized as venture philanthropy works to find innovative, highly effective programs and help visionary social entrepreneurs replicate their proven models in new cities. GreenLight now has operations in three cities: Boston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. Over the last 10 years, GreenLight has brought 9 successful, proven, innovative nonprofits to Boston, which together have raised over $50 million since they arrived here, and impacted well over 150,000 children & families in the inner city. This year, these programs are expected to reach 40,000 children & families, a number that continues to grow in excess of 20% annually.
In 2012, John joined Sigma Prime Ventures as one of its four managing directors. Sigma Prime closed its new venture fund in June of 2013 .
TUGG: You have so many years of experience working in both for profit and nonprofit groups. What inspired you to get started in a leadership role at such a young age?
JOHN: When I volunteered with the special olympics here in Boston, I found the experience to be very fulfilling. We were helping other kids—inspiring kids that were dealing with various challenges—despite those challenges they were so appreciative of anything we could do for them. They were so enthusiastic, so wonderful, and the more I helped them, the more I felt I wanted to keep helping them. It was a great experience.
When I got over to graduate school in England, I wanted to keep volunteering with the Special Olympics, but there was no such thing over there at the time. So I said, ‘Let me see if I can get something started.’ Starting KEEN showed me that a young person can do this: can start something and have a real impact. Maybe, in a way, that got me going with creating things in both the nonprofit and for profit world.
TUGG: There seems to be this general assumption that you have to be older to fill a leadership role. But you think getting involved earlier is better?
JOHN: A lot of people have this idea that to found something, or to be a board member, that you’re required to have a ton of experience. Maybe you’re thinking it’s something you’ll do in your 30s, 40s, 50s, or later. I don’t think that’s the case at all. Most of these organizations—especially on the nonprofit side—they need energy. They need enthusiasm. They need people that actually want to spend the time and, you know, want to be there. That passion, that drive, can be your biggest qualification, and you can learn the rest as you go. It’s all about a willingness to get started. If you’re a young person, get involved as a founder or a board member in the organization’s early stages. Don’t be afraid to take that first step. Once you do, that little step leads to the next, and makes all the subsequent steps a lot easier.
TUGG: At what point during your experience at KEEN did you decide the program was getting big enough where you knew you needed to put together a board? What advice do you have for other growing nonprofits in regards to their leaders?
JOHN: It was probably after a year or two. It’s time to build a board when you feel like [the program] is proven enough where you say, ‘Okay, this could really be something.’ It’s also at the point where the group’s big enough that you start to confront some strategic issues that you want other peoples’ help with. When those things are in place, then you’ll really stop and say, ‘Okay. Let’s build a board.’
TUGG: Aside from looking at resumes and reading credentials, how to did you instinctually decide on who to choose for your nonprofit board? What makes for a really great board member?
JOHN: First, a really great board member truly shares the mission of the organization. You don’t want conflicting agendas. You want people that are passionate about what you’re doing. My second criteria would be trust. You won’t always share agendas, but everybody on the board needs to trust each other and feel like they can comfortably work as part of the same group. Third is time. To be a good board member, you have to get to know people in the organization, you need to be involved in things, and show up at events. The right person will be willing to really put in the time. And my fourth criteria: a person needs to have something to contribute. There’s such a range of contributions people don’t consider; it could be money, a network of people who want to get involved, it could be domain expertise. For example, if you’re starting a soup kitchen and building a board, you may want to choose someone who has actually worked in a soup kitchen. You’re really looking for a mix of talents, backgrounds, ages, and diverse points of view. The best boards are looking at things from all different perspectives before making a decision. Sometimes you will need to look for someone who has a lot of experience—that’s the only age-related one—but there’s no reason that young people can’t contribute as a valuable board member.
TUGG: In your opinion, what are the fundamental building blocks that make a nonprofit organization or social enterprise successful?
JOHN: You need to really understand who you are serving, what you’re service is, what your outcomes should be, and how to measure them. A lot of times organizations are trying to do too many things. If you’re trying to be all things to all people, you’re generally not as effective overall. You need to know what results you are seeking, and ideally those results would be very measurable. This way you’ll be able to determine whether or not you're successful. Not all nonprofits will have completely measurable outcomes, but most will. The more that you understand what those goals are, the better you can measure, track, analyze, and ultimately continue to improve. Leadership is also important. Your organization needs a strong leader who really wants to do everything the best that he or she can.
Lastly, you need to be able to make your case to get support. Every nonprofit has a different funding mechanism and unique financial model. You must understand your program’s financial model, and be able to make the case for why your funding mechanism is going to work. They have a saying in nonprofits: no money, no mission. Just like a for profit business, the program’s leaders have to go out and work to make sure the program has the resources to sustain itself. All of these things go hand-in-hand.
TUGG: How do you think young people could be inspired to join nonprofits and take on leadership board positions?
JOHN: We need to take amazing, charismatic social entrepreneurs and put them in front of young people; let them talk about what they’re doing and why it’s important. Then, you’ll see if young people are inspired to take action.
One of things I find challenging is that a social entrepreneur can develop a great program model, but maybe the social entrepreneur lives in say, New York City. Let’s say that program has now spread from New York, to Chicago, to Detroit, but not yet to Boston. We’re obsessed with this at GreenLight: if we get that social entrepreneur [physically] here to help inspire people, his or her program has the potential to be really successful. We create the opportunity for collision. We want the social entrepreneur to collide with young people in Boston, because to collide is to collaborate, work together, to take the mission forward.
Every year, when GreenLight brings a new program to the city, and we put a spotlight on that program, we hold three events to honor and benefit that program. We invite lots of young people to those events to see if they connect, if the mission resonates, to see if they want to volunteer. The biggest thing is to just connect young people with social entrepreneurs.
The organizations themselves also need to create tracks for young people to get involved. If an organization has a series of paths a young person can follow--volunteer, volunteer more, then maybe move up to participate at some leadership capacity--then the transition to a leadership role feels natural, and it helps the young person grow. It also ensures that everyone is comfortable with one another. Steppingstone, for example, offers the opportunity not only to volunteer, but you can join a committee, or a board of ambassadors.
TUGG: Would say it’s a good idea for a nonprofit organization to try to groom those engaged young people into leadership roles?
JOHN: Definitely. One hundred percent. Steppingstone has alumni board members, people who’ve been through the program who are now 25, 26, 27 years old. Nonprofits can offer opportunities for volunteers to get more involved, but young people can take action too. If you volunteer for an organization and you’re really passionate about it, ask how you can get involved in another way. It’s both a question of the organizations thinking proactively and being responsive, and creating these paths, but it’s also about young people making things happen, pushing the organization.
TUGG: What do you envision for the future of Boston’s nonprofit sector, and philanthropy in the tech ecosystem?
JOHN: The US overall is really generous philanthropically. I think we give away something like 2% of our gross domestic product; that’s way higher than other countries like England or France. Historically, that number has steadily increased over time, which is very good. One of the things to note is that almost all of that giving occurs locally. People are giving to causes within five to ten miles of their home. In general, whatever people are giving, they can probably afford to give a little more. The big task here is to create enough innovative, impactful programs in Boston to draw more dollars in, to draw people off the sidelines, to get people involved earlier in their lives to make the city a better place. With initiatives like TUGG and GreenLight, I think over time we can really make a difference. It’s important to keep exposing people to these programs and encourage them to get involved.
For Boston in particular, I see the amount of people engaged in impactful programs increasing over the next five to ten years. I see the amount of engagement with the tech community increasing as well. There are certain issues in Boston--poverty, economic mobility, economic development, education--in which we’ll definitely see an increase in engagement, based in part on some of these new innovative models combined with the overall involvement young people in Boston’s tech community. All we have to do is make sure the right programs get here, and the right social entrepreneurs are in the spotlight.