Signal Fund is bridging critical funding gaps for social innovatorsLEARN MORE

3 Trends Among Early-Stage Social Enterprises

This article originally appeared on

When I was in medical school in 1992, I received support from Echoing Green, the organization I now run, to help start a mobile health unit called the Family Van. Along with my mentor and friend Dr. Nancy Oriol, I saw that black babies in Boston were dying at three times the rate of white babies and knew there had to be a way to address these disparities. We launched the Family Van to make sure that women living in the inner-city had access to the services they needed, as would their communities.

In those days, I, along with the other Echoing Green Fellows in my class, did not talk about our work in terms of social entrepreneurship; rather we were committed to attacking injustice using all the tools at our disposal. What grew out of the efforts of organizations like Echoing Green is now a thriving movement to equip leaders who see value and opportunity for lasting change where others don’t see possibility.

Despite this momentum and energy, Echoing Green still remains one of just a few truly seed- and early-stage funders for these emerging social entrepreneurs. (A number of this year’s finalists for the Classy Awards are Echoing Green Fellows; it is wonderful to see the growing number of organizations like Classy entering the early-stage social capital market!)

Given that annually we attract thousands of applicants for our social entrepreneurship Fellowship, we have been able to discern key trends affecting this population of social entrepreneurs, and build out critical programming to support them. The dynamic and ongoing feedback loop we’ve created with those we serve guides our ongoing commitment to help build a robust and inclusive social change ecosystem. Here are three trends we’ve noticed among our 2016 Fellowship applicant pool that will continue to inform our work.

1. Innovative Approaches to Social Change

Social innovation is about bringing not just incremental, but dramatic change to social issues. Social entrepreneurs innovate by thinking outside the box to create value for communities, presenting better, novel, or improved solutions for the social challenges they identify. This year’s Fellowship applicants presented interesting innovations from digital products to democratize civic participation to improved financing models that  provide underbanked communities and populations with expanded access to capital, to implementing new teaching models in new contexts.

We’re excited by all of the creative solutions out there. The role of supporting institutions like Echoing Green is not solely to accelerate this work, but to continue to grow our network of thought partners who can help these leaders ensure their approaches are effective for the communities they’re designed to serve.

2. Diverse Organizational Structures

Several years ago, Echoing Green launched its impact investing program to better support Fellows running for-profit and hybrid structured organizations.  We’ve also seen opportunities to contribute to the field as early-stage investors. This year, 45 percent of our Fellowship applicants proposed for-profit and hybrid business models (a 30 percent increase since we first noticed the trend in 2006).

In response to the diverse needs of these emerging entrepreneurs, we’re creating relevant impact investment readiness tools that will improve their ability to enter into funding conversations with potential investors while staying true to their and enhance their social impact-first approach.

3. Global Work

Echoing Green’s origins as a US-based social entrepreneurship organization funding mostly US-based social entrepreneurs has shifted to match the increasingly global nature of the social entrepreneurship movement. Nearly 60 percent of our applications come from countries outside of the US, signaling our shift permanently to a global institution. Further solidifying this shift is the fact that many of our US-based social enterprise applicants are proposing ideas with an international reach, especially those applying for our Climate Fellowship. This global outlook has profound implications for Echoing Green’s work ahead. Because we believe that the best solutions to a community’s challenges usually come from the leaders within it, we are continuing to build out our network to get the word out to extraordinary emerging leaders who are from the communities they serve about opportunities like Echoing Green’s Fellowship and the Classy Awards.

The Future of Social Entrepreneurship

While these trends examine up-and-coming social enterprises, we believe the key to success ultimately is to support the human capital behind them. By valuing and developing emerging top social-impact first talent, by meeting them where they are and providing the tools they need to succeed, social progress has the opportunity to go further, faster.

Entrepreneurship is a framework for achieving positive social change—a framework we’re working to make more diverse  and inclusive. That is what we aim to do here at Echoing Green. After months of searching, we are thrilled to welcome the 2016 class of Echoing Green Fellows. They join a community of over 700 leaders committed to transforming their communities over the course of their lifetime, and building a broader ecosystem of support that will help put effective solutions into practice.

Leave a reply

Your comment has been submitted and is awaiting approval.