Echoing Green has been investing in social entrepreneurs and innovation for nearly three decades. One lesson stands out, says President Cheryl Dorsey: “The leader is the secret sauce of any great social enterprise.” Throughout its history, Echoing Green has been granting fellowships to innovators who had little more than an idea to change the world. Its accumulated data suggests it’s working.
The nonprofit organization approaches its grantmaking with the mentality of a venture fund, seeking to invest in leaders who will have a big impact. Since 1987, the organization has backed 798 “fellows” who have done work in 85 countries and 39 US states. Those fellows and their organizations have gone on to raise over $5 billion. Echoing Green reports that 70 percent of the organizations launched by their fellows between 1990 and 2015 are still in operation today. Additionally, 80 percent of the fellows still work in the social sector—and many of the rest work in academia, government and health care.
Among Echoing Green’s alumni are the founders of successful organizations like Teach For America, City Year, One Acre Fund, SKS Microfinance and Public Allies. Dorsey is an extraordinary example herself. She won an Echoing Green fellowship in 1992—a decade before joining the organization’s staff. A Harvard-trained medical doctor, she applied for the grant to help launch The Family Van, to serve Boston area residents in the African American community, who at the time had the third highest infant mortality rate in the country.
Today, Dorsey’s co-founder, Nancy Oriol continues the work, now having made about 108,000 visits, preventing illness for an estimated 5,648 people. Dorsey explains what it meant for her to receive the fellowship. First, she points to the “cachet and the imprimatur of receiving the accolade” as “a signal to the world that you were an up and coming leader worth paying attention to.”
She is also grateful for the guidance she received that helped her “fail fast in many ways” while mentors were “providing pearls of wisdom that they had learned before.” “The entrepreneurial journey is a tremendously lonely and hard one,” she says, highlighting a third aspect of winning the fellowship that proved to be valuable to her. “Feeling a little less alone made a world of difference.” Others have had existential experiences with their Echoing Green fellowships.
Kathleen Kelly Janus, a lecturer on social entrepreneurship for Stanford and author of Social Startup Success, says, “I interviewed dozens of successful social entrepreneurs for my book, who told me that they literally would not have been able to start their organizations were it not for the early support of Echoing Green.”
Sonal Shah, professor of practice, executive director, Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University, sees the influence of Echoing Green in its willingness to consider candidates early on. “Echoing Green invests in people and their ideas before they are sexy or popular or trendy,” Shah says. “They are many times the only organization that invests in ideas before they are completely formed. They help fellows improve their ideas and refine them. They create a community of support, which is so critical when starting as a social entrepreneur — fellows around the world are taking on issues in their communities that sometimes no one is doing.”
Shah, remarkably applied for a fellowship not once but twice without winning and still became an active supporter, serving as a judge and mentor. She has even hired some Echoing Green fellows at the Beeck Center. Of her application experience, she says, “The lessons we learned from the application gave us great insight. It taught us to be clear about our message. It taught us to write proposals. It taught us for our own application process. We were always grateful for our Echoing Green