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Innovating to Improve the State of Social Entrepreneurship

Lin Thu Hein (left) training Atutu Fellow Hein Htet Aung (right), for Project Sunbird on the latest design of a solar home system before the first installation.

The Echoing Green Fellowship supports bold leaders from all over the world who are building a future where race does not correlate to opportunity and dismantling systemic limitations, denial of resources, and constraints on the space to dream and build.

Seed funding is an integral part of our Fellowship support offerings. We provide unrestricted grants so Fellows have a financial launching pad as they perform the hard work of building a sustainable organization positioned to have a lasting impact. Much of their focus is on opening their doors—and keeping them open—by growing their supporters and seeking out reliable funding sources. To scale their efforts and move beyond “survival mode,” innovators tackling deep-rooted systemic issues require sustained funding.

However, research from our report on barriers to capital underscores what Fellows have long expressed: funding is rarely, if ever, designed to provide the long-term financial support required for social enterprises to become sustainable. In addition, gatekeeping, bias in funding decisions, and frequently shifting donor motivations create roadblocks to establishing enduring solutions rather than temporary interventions

What Practices in the Industry is Echoing Green Responding to?

As an intermediary organization, Echoing Green operates as both a grantor and grantee: we provide grant funding yet also must fundraise for our annual budget.

In this position, we experience some of the more challenging dynamics of the industry, such as grant-making processes driven by the preferences of funders or donors rather than the goals of the communities being served and the prevalence of scarcity driven funding that reinforce power dynamics and maintain the systemic issues philanthropy seeks to tackle— this is especially true for racial justice work. 

While philanthropy has expressed a greater commitment to supporting racial justice work than ever before, we are in the midst of a retrenchment where rhetoric is outpacing impact. As identified in a recent study by the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity, only six cents of every dollar in philanthropic investment is directed to racial equity initiatives and one cent towards racial justice initiatives. 

We know that there is a better path for philanthropy: adopting an abundance mindset, listening and following the leadership of grassroots organizations fighting for liberation, and funding community self-determination are integral to shift to a more just and inclusive philanthropic landscape.

Shifting Our Grant-making Strategy & Processes

Every year, Echoing Green puts out an open call for applications from social innovators addressing a broad set of global challenges. We set ourselves apart by striving to be open to diverse solutions, to place minimal restrictions on eligibility, and to include and listen to our Fellow community when making funding decisions. We embrace the opportunity this process affords us to be self-reflective and take proactive steps to move both ourselves and others in the industry towards a more equitable, transparent, and collaborative mode of operating. 

Through our self-reflection and review of the landscape, Echoing Green determined that there was more we could do in pursuit of contributing to a more just and inclusive social innovation field. In 2021, we launched a series of internal changes both to our funding priorities and the functional day-to-day operation of our Fellowship, its application process, and our investment strategy.

  • Advancing racial equity through social innovation. Creating a just, equitable, and sustainable world involves following the roadmap of those most impacted by structural inequities. In the social innovation space, this has to translate into continuous and stable funding directed toward building the political, economic, and cultural power of communities historically denied it. It also means resourcing intersectional solutions for dismantling inequitable systems. To respond to our communities’ core material needs and address the systemic underfunding of this work, we’ve begun to refine our Fellowship to invest in leaders intentionally and explicitly advancing racial equity globally. 
  •  Increasing our pace of grant-making by adding an additional selection cycle per year. Slow grant processes, burdensome applications, and lengthy diligence processes prevent funding institutions from being responsive to the needs of  prospective grantees. This often comes at the cost of time, energy, and resources that could be spent toward maximizing impact. Through strategic cuts to our process, we were able to find and select an incredible cohort of global change-makers in under half the time of our previous selection cycles.
  • Increasing community participation in grant-making processes. To reduce the timeline between application submission and selection, and to involve our community even more intentionally in decision-making, we expanded the involvement of our partner and Fellow community in the initial decision-making of our grant-making cycles. This subtle change shifted more selection influence to our readers to define the subset of applications that received further review. We view this first step as a successful test of a more trust-based selection that moves us closer to further democratizing our selection process.
  • Shortened and clarified our application to make it easier to complete. Applicants invest their time and share information with no promise of a grant in return. We must be deliberate about honoring their investment by streamlining our questions to gather only the qualitative and quantitative responses needed to make equitable funding decisions.  While we’ve worked on this goal for a long time, we did a rigorous revision of our Fellowship application to better achieve it, removing sections of the application that served internal knowledge but wouldn’t impact ultimate decision-making. We also improved guidance materials to outline more precise selection priorities and criteria.

A Call for Innovating to Improve the State of Social Entrepreneurship

Innovation is the key to success in our industry. At the heart of innovation is a willingness to look plainly at a challenge and the fearlessness to change what doesn’t work. Openness to reflecting and a commitment to addressing critiques are essential practices for any organization seeking to achieve public good. This impulse guides our Fellows. And it’s their fearlessness that inspires Echoing Green to embrace innovation internally and within the broader industry to help fix what’s broken.

We share what we’re learning in the hopes that we demonstrate that changes for working more equitably and efficiently are possible and beneficial. Our team is proud of our willingness to return to the drawing board together to make important decisions about what to maintain and what to transform. While the changes made to our selection practices also altered how we plan and strategize internally, those shifts have already begun to pay off. This year we selected a new class of Fellows, launched a follow-on-funding program to confront the long-term funding issue head-on, and expanded our community of partners committed to enacting positive social change.

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