Not everyone should start a new organization. That sentiment might seem counterintuitive coming from an organization that has supported nearly 730 social entrepreneurs over the course of the last 30 years. But the reality is that it’s rash to start something new without having an intimate understanding of context and the problem to be solved, working alongside communities to generate solutions, and ensuring that the organization is not duplicative of existing efforts. Even after meeting that threshold, there are plenty of barriers to this work and challenges that leaders of early stage organizations will face. So when it comes to addressing social and environmental problems at scale, Echoing Green believes that backing the right leaders, with the right idea at the right time is a crucial piece of the puzzle. That’s why Echoing Green takes a human capital approach to creating better outcomes, and because of this, we’ve learned that how our entrepreneurs are identified and supported must take center stage.
When they started Echoing Green, our founders looked for problem-solvers who emerged from college and university campuses in the United States. These were young leaders who embraced risk and dreamt up bold ideas, many of which still exist today; they just needed funds and support to get started. In those early days, many of these U.S.-based leaders were movement builders who could identify opportunity where others did not, finding allies, creatively aligning resources, and building momentum toward addressing intractable issues.
As the community of Fellows grew and Echoing Green continued to convene them, they shared what they were learning with one another and with Echoing Green. Part of the learning from this Fellow community resulted in an evolution of the way we supported these leaders. But, given that talent is distributed throughout the world but opportunity is not, it was not good enough to simply shift the program offerings for Fellows. We also needed to abandon “business as usual” when it came to recruitment. Restricting where you search for leaders restricts the scope of the problems you can help solve. It also limits who has a say in how problems should be addressed. Of course, social entrepreneurs don’t only reside on college campuses or in the graduating classes of the world’s top business schools–entrepreneurial ingenuity is not confined to these domains. By listening to our Fellow community and also taking a critical lens toward our search and selection processes, Echoing Green had and continues to have an opportunity to remove barriers to market entry for emerging entrepreneurs.
For the Fellowship application process (the driving force toward building this community), we’ve talked about the importance of identifying and understanding the barriers applicants face even before entering into the Echoing Green Fellowship application process. But, we also need to continually evaluate our own process to mitigate the danger of creating additional barriers for the entrepreneurs who contemplate, start, or complete an application.
When Echoing Green selects Fellows, it’s important that we distill what “it” is we’re seeking, knowing that there are all types of leaders. To leave “it” undefined would risk perpetuating a myopic interpretation of what makes a social entrepreneur and how social innovation networks should function. We view the codification of these qualities as a critical element of our work. In addition to a set of criteria used to evaluate applicants’ bold ideas for disrupting entrenched social problems, we’re heavily focused on asking questions to help applicants reveal key qualities that are indicators of an entrepreneur’s potential for positive impact:
- Purpose and Passion
- Ability to Attract Resources
A significant and timely idea for positively disrupting the status quo is vital, but our human capital focus means Echoing Green focuses on the person first and foremost. This perspective may be our greatest asset, as it has contributed to a strong, expressive community of Fellows that is unafraid to share insights with Echoing Green that have made the institution more equitable in its practices and nimble at dismantling its own status quo. Becoming more precise in the vocabulary we use to talk about our Fellowship, what we offer, and who we’re looking for improves our search and outreach efforts. Over the past two years, we’ve also worked to remove extraneous questions from the Fellowship application, adjusted the way we ask other questions to truly get at what we really want to know rather than using exclusionary proxy measures, expanded our applicant outreach partnerships, and formally involved Echoing Green alumni Fellows at every step of applicant review.
By placing smart, informed bets on talent and supporting their growth as they embark upon the challenge of launching an organization, we benefit from the added value of building out a social innovation space that is teeming with even more authentic, committed social change leaders.
Here’s what’s next:
Over the years, we’ve been able to evolve our Fellowship search process as we continue to grow a community of thoughtful innovators with each cycle. As part of that evolution, we would be remiss to expect these leaders to be responsive to changing needs in their work without also taking on that task ourselves. By sharing what we learn about identifying and selecting our Fellows with the field and taking in what our peers are learning from their own processes, we have an opportunity to make headway at dismantling more of the obstacles that prevent new voices from being heard in the social innovation space.
The search continues: Read the 2017 Social Impact Report to meet 73 next-generation innovators with the drive to launch bold ideas to address some of today’s greatest challenges.
This post was edited on 4/22/2017.