The Reinvention of Philanthropy: An Interview With The Aspen Institute’s Jonathan Greenblatt

Jonathan Greenblatt currently serves as the Director of The Impact Economy Initiative at the Aspen Institute and is the founder and former president of All for Good (Our Good Works [OGW]), the open source, web-based initiative to engage more Americans in service. It is the largest database of volunteer listings ever compiled and provides content to a wide range of government, nonprofit, and personal websites. Jonathan is the former CEO of GOOD Worldwide and the co-founder of Ethos Brands, the business that launched Ethos Water, the premium bottled water that helps children around the world get clean water. Jonathan served as vice president of global consumer products at Starbucks Coffee Company following its acquisition of Ethos in 2005 as well as joined the board of directors of the Starbucks Foundation.  

Jonathan also has worked at the highest levels of public service. He developed international economic policy as an aide in the Clinton White House and served on the Technology and Innovation working group of the Obama-Biden Presidential Transition team. He currently serves on the board of several leading nonprofit organizations including the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, KaBOOM! and He is a Henry Crown Fellow of the Aspen Institute and was appointed to the faculty at the Anderson School of Management at UCLA in 2006 where he teaches social entrepreneurship. He graduated cum laude from Tufts University and earned an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

You are currently the Director of the Impact Economy Initiative at the Aspen Institute, can you tell us a little more about that?

We are living through a period of history when forces such as globalization and technology have accelerated the pace of change to a breathtaking rate.  In these turbulent times, as the country seeks new approaches to job creation and economic renewal, a number of experts increasingly acknowledge the relationship between national competitiveness, social impact and environmental benefit.  An increasing number of people describe this emerging convergence as the “Impact Economy,” a phenomenon that encompasses a wide range of sectors including community enterprises and clean tech as well as new fields such as affordable living and ethical brands.

As the Impact Economy takes shape, public policy can play a pivotal role to accelerate its evolution.  It creates the operating context in which the field can flourish.  By the same token, a lack of clarity about policies or an absence of programs can hinder its development.  Through its philanthropy and social innovation program, the Aspen Institute has launched a new project, The Impact Economy Initiative (IEI), in order to help policy makers to understands the benefits of this transformation and how they can help to create an enabling environment to support this trend.  We are trying to catalyze a bi-partisan, non-ideological discussion about the issues and cultivate new ideas about how policy can stimulate economic gain and generate social benefit for all segments of our society.

What are the trends you see that indicate the emergence of an impact economy?

There are a number of indicators that herald this new moment.  In fact, it feels like we are experiencing a long-term shift rather than witnessing a short-term trend.  For example, we are seeing Impact Investing shift from a rare phenomenon to a frequent element of the diversified portfolios of many conventional investors.  A Monitor Institute analysis forecast that the field could grow from $5 billion to $50 billion by the end of the decade.  Perhaps even more telling, JP Morgan report issued last late year that described Impact Investing as a $40 billion worldwide market — and they only focused on the BOP dimensions of the field.  Even more recently, the IPO for ZipCar was quite a success, generated a 56% return on the issuance price, raising almost $175mm in its first day and achieving a market capitalization of just north of $1 billion.  

Closer to home, its impossible for me to walk out onto the UCLA campus and not see students wearing TOMS shoes, drinking Ethos Water, and clamoring for classes in social entrepreneurship.  All these signal that consumers and investors, Main Street and Wall Street, are taking part in the Impact Economy.  Its an exciting time.

What is government’s role in the impact economy?  What are a few public policies changes that can be enacted that can positively effect the growth trajectory of the impact economy?

The government should avoid picking winners.  However, at all levels, policy makers can create rules of the road that make it easier for entrepreneurs and investors to build great businesses, to develop great products and to deliver effective services.  Whether through advancing legislation, iterating regulations, adapting operating practices or simply using its bully pulpit, government can clarify the market and create the conditions in which the Impact Economy can thrive.  

Rather than focus on specific policy changes, I would highlight the work that the government has done to foster exports.  We have almost 60 years of a broad bipartisan commitment to free trade.  Following suit, we have seen the creation of a robust set of initiatives and programs to support US exports, helping to cultivate perhaps the most dynamic and fastest growing segment of our contemporary economy.  Through offering risk capital, opening new markets and crafting multilateral frameworks, the government has developed a transparent and vibrant market for US firms that want to bring their goods to global consumers.  The resultant economic and political benefits are well-understood.  We need a similar approach here in this field.

What role do incentives play in the impact economy can you give us examples of how they are being used today?

I think government must develop incentive-based models.  This is not about mandating change top-down.  Instead, we need to see a bottom-up shift led by those entrepreneurs and investors who opt to move in this direction because it is sensible to do so.  In terms of the incentives that trigger such practices, you can point to programs like the SBA’s highly successful SBIC program that has been adapted to accommodate for impact investing.  Another interesting incentive model takes place outside government: the trend initiated at the Yale School of Management to provide some measure of tuition relief for MBA students who take jobs at certified B corporations or L3Cs upon graduation.  

What organizations should we keep an eye on that are helping grow the impact economy?

There are many actors that are driving this transformative process.  For example, you can find Impact Investors, whether mindful capitalists like Generation Investment Management, Impact Assets, Catamount Ventures, Omidyar Network or Satori Capital as well as forward-thinking philanthropies such as the Rockefeller Foundation, Heron Foundation or RSF Social Finance. You can find trailblazing Social Enterprises such as Patagonia, Method, and LivingHomes or larger scale global corporations playing in this field such as GE, Triodos, or Whole Foods Markets.  I also think the Change Agents who are facilitating the capital markets are a critical factor, from incubators like The Hub and Unreasonable Institute; advisory firms such as Social Finance and Imprint Capital; membership organizations like Investors Circle, GIIN and B Lab; and conferences such as SOCAP and Take Impact!  All these entities play a role in this emerging ecosystem.

How can Care2 members help accelerate the impact economy?

I think that the Care2 audience could be catalytic to grow this field.  It starts by learning about the issues, sharing stories with friends via social media, organizing meetups with like-minded people, and basically spreading the word.  Once people understand how certain policies and programs can foster economic prosperity and social impact, I believe that can find ways to advocate for such change, whether at a local, regional. national or even global level.  I also think your readership can listen to the suggestion of Stonyfield Farm’s Gary Hirshberg and “vote with their wallet” by striving to patronize and support those businesses and organizations that are consistent with their values.  


Photo provided by Jonathan Greenblatt


Akin Adelakun
Akin Adelakun7 years ago

Thanks for this article.

Robert O.
Robert O7 years ago


caterina caligiuri
caterina c7 years ago

thanks very interesting

Sue Matheson
Sue Matheson7 years ago

thanks for this post

Priscilla G.
Priscilla G7 years ago

Thanks for sharing

K s Goh
KS Goh7 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Susan T.
Susan T7 years ago

This guy is a white collar con artist. I am extremely suspicious of anyone who says (essentially) that Wall Street investing is going to help save the world. All we have to do is just buy different brands. We line the pockets of these a--holes and still "feel good about ourselves" while the world continues to fall down around us.

Notice he says the government shouldn't "pick winners" - in other words, just provide "incentives" and leave it up to Wall Street.

Ethos Water is a SCAM. I repeat a SCAM. I just read an article about a bottle of their water retailing for $4, placed next to a "socially uncaring" bottle of water retailing for $2. At $0.05 per dollar, that means the charities get $0.20. Obviously the cost of producing that bottle of water is less than $2 - I have read it is closer to $0.30 per bottle. So this "socially caring" company gets to make over 300% profit and pennies go to charity.!/photos/38044/1

I notice on the Ethos Water website they conveniently don't say where Ethos Water is sourced from, or whether a fair price is paid for the right to extract it. The BIGGEST problem right now in the worldwide water crisis is corporations buying up (translation STEALING) water rights and forcing people who should have rights to that water to PAY for it. I suspect Ethos does as much damage as it does good, all the while enriching its phony con artist founders.

Brenda Towers
Brenda Towers7 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

Rani Lyons
Rani Lyons7 years ago

good in depth interview, thanks.

JD L.7 years ago

I interviewed Jonathan at the Nonprofit Technology Conference about All for Good. Great to see he's moving things forward for the open media community in a big way.