Lesson 1: Times Change. So Must Our Work.

Think big, be bold, drive change. This is the mindset upon which Echoing Green was founded 30 years ago when our founders were looking to apply their VC investment model to social change. Their answer was to make early-stage investments in emerging leaders, helping to breathe life into new approaches for addressing some of the world’s greatest challenges. Since then, Echoing Green has found, backed, and accelerated people who, upon bearing witness to systemic social challenges, see solutions where others may see closed doors. As of this year, we’ve funded 727 people working to make dramatic, not incremental, social change. The resourceful, solutions-oriented perspectives of these leaders fuel the social entrepreneurship space that has emerged across the globe thanks to the efforts of many. Everyone—from community leaders, investors, philanthropists, CSR leaders, and more—has a role to play.

Still, as we enter a new year, we’re reminded that social progress is not neat or finite. In spite of this, we’re confident that we’re moving in the direction of progress. With the right tools, a diverse mix of leaders will set the agenda for dismantling entrenched structural inequities and the social consequences they produce. As we think about what the next 30 years will bring, Echoing Green has recommitted to being a resource and champion for these trailblazers.

The Takeaway: After 30 years of impact, we’re still learning. As the world changes, so do the world’s leaders and the problems they solve. To support these leaders well, we need to disrupt our own status quo and listen, learn, and react to present contexts.

It’s true that, when it comes to social change in general and the social entrepreneurship landscape in particular, conditions look different today than they did in 1987. People have connected more than ever thanks to the internet, open data helps determine policies, and mobile applications democratize education. At the same time, wars have ended and begun, political landscapes have shifted, and climate change threatens the very existence of communities across the globe. In the face of evolving challenges and resources, it’s clear to us that the resolute instigators and problem solvers will lead the way toward changing the trajectory of entire systems.

It is here where context is important. To purposefully evolve or disrupt systems while minimizing unintended consequences, we have to ask questions, listen to the responses, and use those lessons to inform how we move forward. Our aim is certainly not to disrupt systems for disruption’s sake: we’ve learned that meaningful and thoughtful disruption is rooted in trust by following the lead of our Fellows and their communities. This means meeting leaders where they are, sharing information and networks, and being part of the solution when it comes to dismantling barriers to justice.

Over the years, Echoing Green Fellows and partners have been a generous community that challenges the organization to think about understanding and responding to context thoughtfully. In the spirit of always learning as we continue to contribute to the field, we must also be courageous as we support those closest to the problems who question “business as usual.” This is something we’ve thought a lot about and we’re eager to share some of the ways we’re applying it to our work over the course of this series. If progress is made better by forming inclusive partnerships, being willing to take imperfect steps in the right direction, being transparent, and accepting any discomfort we may feel as we grow from critique, then we want to share what we’re learning along the way and carve out spaces for others to share their voices, too.

Here’s what’s next:

In the spirit of these lessons and always learning, we’re kicking off our thirtieth year with a series of conversations featuring Echoing Green Fellows who bring fresh perspectives and new solutions to address age-old problems. We have the opportunity to hear from 12 of these Fellows during Change, Justice, Equity, a Solutions Week event series hosted in partnership with WNYC and Jami Floyd, host of “All Things Considered,” at The Greene Space on January 9-12. We look forward to sharing lessons learned in the months to come.

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