Blue Ridge Celebrates 15 Years

Blue Ridge Celebrates 15 Years

Our Story

For 15 years, we've funded & incubated social ventures that advance opportunity & upward mobility in America. This is our story. When we launched in 1999, we were very much a start-up for start-ups. Like the ventures we supported, we hit the ground learning – and never stopped. Throughout our first 15 years, Blue Ridge continually evolved the way we funded and supported new ventures to advance opportunity and mobility for low income Americans.

The Incubator


The Right Measure

Policy Matters


Digital Impact


Power of
Small Bets

Impact Investing

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The Incubator

Fifteen years ago, we adapted a private-sector incubator model to the social sector, supplying talented social entrepreneurs with seed funding, office space, and a community of like-minded colleagues.

For us, “incubation” meant making substantial financial, in-kind, and human capital investments in our grantees. During our first decade, we made multi-year grants up to $500,000. The idea was to provide groups with enough to support their growth, while encouraging them to diversify their funding sources. We offered a physical home and technical assistance to promote best management and governance practices. This strategy worked: Since 1999, we helped launch 30 ventures, all operational today. The $20 million we’ve invested has allowed our ventures to raise an additional $250 in philanthropic support. And we demonstrated this approach for others: today there are nearly 40 incubators in the social sector.

Relationship ROI

We’ve always relied on collaborations to address poverty, opportunity and social mobility. From our earliest days, Blue Ridge has forged partnerships with organizations like Echoing Green, Vera Institute of Justice, New Profit, Robin Hood Foundation, universities, the tech community, and city, state and federal government agencies. We’ve hosted dozens of meet-ups, roundtables, hackathons, workshops and policy discussions at our Court Street offices in Brooklyn, creating a hub for social innovation. Building these networks has been central to our work, critical for strengthening individual organizations and the ‘collective impact’ of the field as a whole.

The Right Measure

Blue Ridge has been firmly committed to the practice of performance management, having grantees set clear goals and then hold themselves accountable to them. We’ve worked with our organizations to identify the right tools that would help them define and assess their successes.

Yet we’ve learned that for start-ups, where the business model is constantly evolving, even sorting out what the right measures should be is challenging. Rather than insisting on a particular set of metrics early on, we encouraged each grantee to explore the potential of its model, consider multiple measures, and then rigorously track key metrics once the work was more refined. We’ve also worked with other funders, like the Robin Hood Foundation, to help our organizations determine, collect and demonstrate the performance data they need for follow-on investment.

Policy Matters

Influencing public policy is essential for impact at scale. We have worked at the federal level (including collaborations with America Forward and the White House Office of Social Innovation) and more locally through initiatives with New York City government and the city’s Ed Tech community to advance opportunity and mobility for low income Americans.

Our investment in Esperanza is a great example. The organization, launched in partnership with the Vera Institute of Justice, helped demonstrate that in-home and community-based probation programs for young people can be more effective at rehabilitation and more cost-effective than incarceration. Esperanza’s success has helped shift the way governments consider and fund juvenile justice programs and policy.

Weighing Scale

As a very lean organization, we have constantly looked for ways to enhance the breadth and depth of our impact. Initially, we focused on turning ideas into organizations and then growing these ventures to reach more people. Around 2004 we began to add ‘replication’ organizations to our portfolio, helping to bring the good work of organizations like Summer Search, College Summit, Citizen Schools and Year Up to New York City. Funding demonstration projects – proof of concept for other nonprofits, philanthropies or policy makers to pursue – is also critical for scale. In recent years, we have looked to technology ventures to expand our reach.

Digital Impact

We have always believed in the potential of technology to dramatically increase social and economic mobility in the United States – our very first investment was in iMentor. In 2011, we shifted to a fully tech portfolio, with investments in organizations like Turbovote, Code for America NYC, DataKind, Wishbone, and Zearn. This development reflected our belief that today’s digital divide is not about lack of access (80% of poor people in the U.S. have cell phones), but about the need for meaningful and significant products that can help improve mobility and opportunity for low income Americans. Our work to strengthen the broader “tech for good” community in New York City has involved bringing together engineers, nonprofits and city government through conferences and regular events like meet-ups and hackathons.

Recalibrating Risk

Our recent and exclusive focus on technology allowed us to think more specifically about “disruptive innovation.” Instead of asking, “how plausible is your idea or organization?” we began to ask of potential investments, “if this works, will the impact be really deep or broad?” This shift involved a greater appetite for risk, and a willingness to entertain failure.

Power of Small Bets

More tolerance for – and interest in – higher risk-reward investments helped evolve our approach. It meant we could place “smaller bets” – and more of them – in organizations with a different cost structure: start-ups developing early versions of digital products with lean staff and operations. Instead of committing $500,000 up front and for a five year period, we started to make $50,000 initial investments with the intention of contributing more, over time, as these organizations demonstrated momentum. This was how we proceeded with start-ups like Code Montage and Kinvolved.

Impact Investing

A shift towards an exclusively tech portfolio made us increasingly agnostic about backing for-profit or nonprofit organizations as we examined the intersections between technology, poverty, and upward mobility. Fundamentally, we asked the same question we had always asked: is the business model viable? In 2013, almost all of our investments were in for-profit, social purpose tech ventures like Benestream, LightSail or Viridis Learning, putting us squarely in the “impact investing” field.

Through the Years

Since 1999 we have supported great entrepreneurs with ideas that create meaningful social impact. Over 15 years, we've provided 30 start-ups with seed funding, co-working space, and hands-on support to help launch their concepts into high impact organizations, advancing opportunity and upward mobility for people living in poverty.


Investor John Griffin and social entrepreneur Matt Klein create the Blue Ridge Foundation New York, an incubator for social ventures to advance opportunity and upward mobility for low income Americans. Blue Ridge launches its first venture, iMentor, from concept to organization, recruiting Rich Buery to serve as the founding Executive Director.

New Ventures

Blue Ridge continues to help build iMentor. The Foundation identifies space in downtown Brooklyn to incubate additional new ventures.

Doors open at 150 Court Street in downtown Brooklyn. Blue Ridge will become home to 30 start-ups and a center of activity for the larger social innovation sector.

Blue Ridge publicly announces it incubation strategy – to transform high potential ideas into institutions that demonstrate practical solutions for advancing opportunity and upward mobility – and begins to accept applications.

New Ventures

Portfolio opens to “replications” of successful organizations to the New York market with an investment in the Taproot Foundation. Replications will eventually include College Summit, Year Up, Summer Search, and Citizen Schools.

New Ventures

Blue Ridge partners with the Vera Institute of Justice to launch Esperanza, a demonstration project that will change the way policy makers address juvenile justice.

New Ventures

Blue Ridge is increasingly recognized as thought leader, center and resource for innovation and entrepreneurship for the ventures in its own portfolio and for the larger community, through regular convenings, open houses, training sessions and discussion series.

Blue Ridge invests in Exalt and Year Up, and helps ready them for follow-on funding from the Robin Hood Foundation.

New Ventures

Blue Ridge publishes its first case study, “Incubating Change: A Funder’s Perspective on Using an Incubation Model to Launch a New Nonprofit” to document and share lessons learned with the field. The incubation model is increasingly seen as a way to foster social change organizations.

Blue Ridge plays a leadership role in the national social innovation movement, working with America Forward to put social entrepreneurship on the 2008 election agenda and helping to design the new White House Office of Social Innovation and its first Social Innovation Fund.

Blue Ridge invests in Blue Engine and Green City Force, organizations which will go on to win national recognition. In 2013 GCF is honored at the White House as a Champion of Change and President Obama cites Blue Engine in his 2014 State of the Union address.

As part of the collaborative Pathways Fund, Blue Ridge wins funding from the first Federal Social Innovation Fund to support high impact youth development programs.

Blue Ridge recommits itself fully to a portfolio of technology centric ventures, focused on ways in which technology – and disruptive innovation – can be used to address issues of opportunity, access, and mobility for low income Americans.

New Ventures

Experts-in-residence join the Blue Ridge community. In exchange for probono services for grantees, experts in various fields (communications, design, coding, nonprofit tech) receive free office space.

A disruptive innovation investment strategy allows for broader thinking about risk, reward and ways that technology can serve low income Americans. Blue Ridge’s portfolio opens to for-profit ventures that meet mission criteria and Blue Ridge helps strengthen the “tech for good” community in New York City.

Blue Ridge incubates Significance Labs to test new ways to bring tech talent into the social sector.

New Ventures

Our Impact

Blue Ridge has long measured impact through the successes of its portfolio organizations

Our ventures have raised follow on support from the nation’s leading philanthropies: including

Gates, Rockefeller, and Robin Hood Foundations

Omidyar Network, Google

and the federal Social Innovation Fund


The percentage of our 30 portfolio organizations still operational today.

“Without Blue Ridge I would still be working out of my closet.

Seth Flaxman, Co-Founder Turbovote

Our ventures receive wide and national recognition, including mention in the 2014 State of the Union address


The number of social innovation incubators in the U.S. today (and counting!) Blue Ridge has demonstrated that the incubator model works.


The number of lives our portfolio organizations will directly impact in 2014 alone.

“If we really care about issues like mass incarceration and juvenile justice, we have to be willing to change the conversation.  Blue Ridge has really helped to change policy through demonstration projects.”

Nick Turner, President Vera Institute of Justice

Our ventures are the subject of nationwide media attention

“Blue Ridge provided legitimacy for the incubator, space sharing model. They pioneered a way for doing things that has been highly influential.”

Eli Malinsky, Executive Director Centre for Social Innovation
Our ventures win many prominent awards including:

New York Times Nonprofit Excellence

New York City’s Most Innovative Nonprofits

Department of Justice honors

$250 million

The additional amount of funds raised by our ventures in philanthropic support due to our original $20 million investment.

“In the last 15 years Blue Ridge and Matt Klein have filled an important gap through smart and early stage investments.  They have incubated some really awesome organizations that wouldn’t have gotten funding or gotten off the ground.”

The Robin Hood Foundation

Our grantees go on to become Fellows and leaders in the social entrepreneurship world