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Jonathan Greenblatt: A Civic Innovator

Friday, November 1, 2013

Tufts alumnus Jonathan Greenblatt, A92, now a Special Assistant to the President, talks about his time at Tufts and his work at the White House.


In 1992, while a senior at Tufts, Jonathan Greenblatt became enthused by a charismatic politician named Bill Clinton. “I wanted to change the world,” says Greenblatt about working for the campaign, first as a volunteer and later as a paid staffer, as Clinton went on to become president.

More than 20 years later, Greenblatt is still trying to change the world; and after a successful career as a social entrepreneur in both the public and private sectors, he’s back working for the president. This time around, however, he has a slightly more impressive title: Special Assistant to Barack Obama and Director of the Office of Social Innovation. Part of the Domestic Policy Council, the office has flourished under Greenblatt’s leadership and allowed him to further pursue the passion for active citizenship that has defined his life since he was a Jumbo.

As a Tufts student, Greenblatt exemplified the many forms civic engagement can take. While he did some traditional volunteer service with the Leonard Carmichael Society, he was otherwise very involved in campus and community life as a Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity brother, editor of the Tufts Observer, and a DJ for WMFO. He also worked for Tufts Dining to help pay for his education.

While Greenblatt’s time at Tufts predates Tisch College, he believes that the emphasis on active citizenship was already an important part of the university’s culture. “I think it’s just a very civically minded place and the campus is deeply concerned with being a citizen of the world,” says Greenblatt, who recently returned to Tufts to deliver the Lyon & Bendheim Alumni Lecture.

“I believe in public service and I think, in part, that can probably be attributed to my education there at the school,” he adds. “That’s something that I think has guided my actions throughout the rest of my life.”

That commitment to changing the world has certainly guided his major entrepreneurial initiatives. Greenblatt is the founder of Ethos Water, now owned by Starbucks, which has generated millions of dollars for clean water and sanitation projects in developing nations. He also started All for Good, the largest online aggregation of volunteer opportunities, now operated by Points of Light.

At the White House, Greenblatt is leading efforts to transform the way that public and private entities work together to solve national problems. “My office designed the Social Innovation fund, a $50 million ‘fund of funds’ that has directly and indirectly catalyzed over half a billion dollars in funding for organizations across the country working on some of our toughest challenges,” he says. Other projects spearheaded by his office, such as Pay for Success and the National Impact Initiative, channel capital to institutions that are producing measurable positive outcomes.

Greenblatt credits the success of these and other initiatives, in part, to the value President Obama personally places on civic innovation and engagement. “It’s very important. He sees it as an element of an integrated strategy of economic development, and he deeply believes in this work,” Greenblatt says. That commitment, he adds, is being echoed at all levels across the nation.

“There’s progress happening in the country, in states and cities, but also among ordinary citizens. You see people voting with their wallet; supporting elected officials who use these models,” he says.

For Greenblatt, New England in general, and Massachusetts in particular, has long been at the forefront on these issues, with many businesses, local governments, organizations and universities—like Tufts—deeply committed to active citizenship and service.

“Tufts is already way out ahead. Tisch College is quite remarkable and unique with its focus on civic participation; there’s nothing else like it, that I know of, in any major university in America,” says Greenblatt. “Some of the research coming out of CIRCLE is quite meaningful, and we really appreciate their scholarship.”

Greenblatt also compliments Tufts alumni for their commitment to civic engagement, and is confident that many other Jumbos will, in their own way, join him in this challenging but deeply satisfying work.

“I get to work with great people. It’s a privilege to serve the president and to work with really remarkable public servants who are in this because they want to make a difference,” he says. “I feel pretty lucky.”