Lesson 3: Community Building is Crucial to an Entrepreneur’s Success.

The social innovation landscape continues to grow (largely due to the influence of expanding networks). Echoing Green and Ashoka were early supporters in the 80s, but over the past decade the marketplace of fellowships, incubators, and impact accelerators has also grown significantly. In fact, as of 2013, there were over 150 impact accelerators operating in the U.S., Sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia alone. Accelerators and incubators offer specialized benefits to entrepreneurs and startups at different stages such as frameworks to test new ideas, tools to improve their impact, and access that allows entrepreneurs to expand their networks

Some of these programs last for a few days, weeks, or months, providing start-ups with intensive support around a specific goal, seed capital, or mentorship. At Echoing Green, where we use a cohort model to support, engage, and catalyze leaders, we’ve found that the end of our two-year funding period is just the beginning for our Fellows. The community of social change leaders, investors, social impact enthusiasts, and public, private, and government sector supporters is the Fellowship benefit that lasts the longest; Fellows remain engaged with this network as they continue to grow their organizations or transition to other leadership roles.

The Takeaway: A deeply supportive community may be the most crucial ingredient to the life of a social change leader. It’s our goal to grow it thoughtfully and intentionally.

As a leadership development organization, Echoing Green learned pretty early on that the community was a special asset that could deliver compounding returns to Fellows even after their funding period ends. The “stickiness” of this community of movement builders–particularly that Fellows maintain connections to one another and Echoing Green as supporters, mentors, and connectors–is part of why Echoing Green’s programs look as they do today.

Year after year, Echoing Green Fellows show up for each other: they serve on each other’s boards, visit each other’s organizations when they’re in town, advise each other on programmatic items, connect Fellows to their networks, and so much more beyond the workplace. The lesson we draw from this is to be increasingly deliberate about fostering this “stickiness” well after the end of their formal Fellowship and to create opportunities for our full community to engage with each other.

I’ve always known that voices shape the way we view the world. It’s this same idea that has connected me so deeply to Echoing Green, where voices and representation are critical to creating positive social change. I was encouraged to apply for a Fellowship by another Echoing Green Fellow, a decision that helped shape my path as a leader, storyteller, and creator in the world. Over the years, I’ve received invaluable advice from this community, and I’ve mentored alumni and current Fellows alike as they’ve found triumph in sharing ideas that matter with the world.  – Katie Orenstein ’08, founder of The OpEd Project


The over 700 Fellows in Echoing Green’s community have a diversity of needs, interests, and offerings. It’s our role to listen, learn, and act to best leverage the talents of this network. As the social innovation field continues to evolve, anticipating and responding to the needs of our Fellows helps shape experiences that are meaningful to them and to the field. In the last 30 years, we’ve learned that one part of doing this well is prioritizing our investment in our alumni community.

Our alumni Fellows have recently come together to form a Fellowship Advisory Committee. Developed by Echoing Green and Fellows, the current members of this committee represent classes from 1997 to 2015. They’re dedicated to including Fellows on key institutional recommendations regarding Fellowship programming and engagement. This is an incredible engagement resource; it’s a formal mechanism for the community to contribute perspectives, connect to current institutional strategies, and use their wisdom to advocate for interests of the Fellow community.

Because networks are a critical component of an entrepreneur’s success, we recognize the importance of thinking and acting critically when building communities. We also recognize that networks perpetuate themselves and that people still have differential access to network resources once they’re “inside.” Echoing Green is fortunate to be home to a diversity of perspectives, approaches, and people, but we’re not immune to this truth. If we’re not mindful of the ways we grow and resource this community, we stand to perpetuate some of the very same problems we’re seeking to address.

Configure Support

It’s important to gather people across perspectives to address complex questions or issues. For example, the Fellowship program’s Communities of Practice bring Fellows from different classes together virtually and in-person to collaborate and learn from one another. Echoing Green and participants share their learnings and contribute them to their fields. We launched three of these cohorts in 2016 focused on diversity in K-12 education (check out what they’re talking about on Huffington Post), women and leadership, and human-centered design. With these tailored cohorts, Fellows have a structure to home in on a topic while learning through collaboration.

Infuse the Community Everywhere

The most powerful way we create value for the Echoing Green ecosystem is to carve out space for community to happen. In some cases, this translates to holding regional gatherings or hosting events during conferences where many of our Fellows are in attendance. This also means establishing community from the very beginning. When we ask ourselves “Who is in our applicant pool – and who isn’t?”, and “Who are we selecting – and how?” Fellows are part of that conversation. They hold regional Fellowship information sessions around the world, encourage social change leaders to apply, and share advice to people who are just starting out. They continue to build this community well-beyond the end of their Fellowship funding period.

Here’s what’s next:

This October, Echoing Green will host our annual conference in the Bay Area of California. Save the date for Echoing Green’s summit with social innovators – convening Fellows, investors, corporate leaders, social change leaders from the Bay and beyond, and many more – on Monday, October 9. Stay tuned for more details!


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