At a recent dialogue Echoing Green hosted on the future of social entrepreneurship, attendees grappled with our central question: whether social entrepreneurship is still a relevant mechanism for social change today. For Echoing Green, where we view social entrepreneurship as a force that operates at the intersection of social innovation and social justice, the answer is yes. There are many ways to define social entrepreneurship, but where the boundaries between the business, government, and social sectors can be blurred in service of ideas that create new, shared value is where we believe there exists a crucial role for leaders with purpose, committed to addressing inequality and systems that disadvantage communities over generations and threaten the ability of people to thrive in the future.
Over our 30-year history is a multiplicity of moments where inequality is reinforced by systems and institutions. What is the role of social entrepreneurship in those moments? In part, its role is to be wielded by leaders, close to the injustices they want to address, who understand that their work crosses fictional boundaries. Among Echoing Green’s community of Fellows are people who are addressing disparities in education, racism in policing, climate vulnerability from the United States to the Himalayas, and confronting preventable death in healthcare. They, along with their peers, know that their work cannot be approached in silos.
Of course, systems intersect in ways that have consequences across discipline and sector that reinforce inequities. Health care outcomes are often issues of economic and racial justice; in U.S. communities where education is underfunded, they are likely to be over-policed; and climate vulnerability can be tied to agricultural progress, policy determinations of other countries (see the United States’ Federal government determination to leave the Paris accords), race, nationality…the list goes on. There are plenty more intersections among these issues and the work of our other Fellows. Within Echoing Green’s community of leaders, supporters, funders, and advisors are people who seek to understand these intersections and do their part to create and support solutions. This speaks to the continued relevance of this field, but more importantly, to the importance of widening the tent to bring more perspectives and actors to the table.
It’s important to us that people can come together across disciplines to exchange ideas, learn from one another, and bring their full selves as they pursue their work. Beyond this, we know how important it is that, when our community convenes, they have space to not only consider who all the stakeholders are in their work but also to understand how power and agency play a role in achieving equitable outcomes. If we acknowledge that the issues are intersectional, and we value our community for their ability to draw wisdom from one another, make connections across geographies and communities, and to be accountable to themselves and those directly affected by the work, Echoing Green’s continued commitment to working alongside more, diverse voices will only strengthen our work.
The Takeaway: Access does not equal participation or inclusion. It’s not enough to bring people together. Our community holds itself–including Echoing Green–accountable to taking action with what we learn.
People from all walks–including social entrepreneurs, community partners and stakeholders, funders, business leaders–have unique roles to play to deepen and grow social impact. When we consider the present and future of social entrepreneurship, we know that justice and agency are important for the communities directly impacted by the work, and also for the leaders themselves. Knowing this, how do we construct programming for our ecosystem? And how do we think about those experiences across perspectives? And, what happens after they leave: What is our role to play knowing that for some, after exchanging ideas and learning at a conference, a retreat, or a community of practice, they leave only to face bias-driven barriers to operationalizing their ideas? The pursuit of these answers is part of our accountability to the social entrepreneurship ecosystem.
Echoing Green is privileged to have a community that is unafraid to exchange feedback and holds one another, and us, accountable to working in partnership and collaboratively. As a leadership development organization that views our community as our most valuable partner in creating the world we want to see, it’s also important that we amplify voices, do our part to contribute to the conditions that will help our global community of Fellows to thrive, and most importantly, remain accountable to those directly affected by the work we do. As TandemED co-founders Dorian Burton (also of William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust) and Brian Barnes (and of the Tennessee Achievement School District) urge in their must-read article, “Shifting Philanthropy from Charity to Justice”, “…we must acknowledge advantages, privileges, and power dynamics, and approach our work alongside individuals to fix or replace broken systems.”
Here’s what’s next
We know that leaders who are unflinchingly committed to bringing new thinking to how the world’s injustices are addressed will lead to meaningful and lasting change. They cannot have this impact alone and it will be much harder if they are not an active voice at tables where decisions concerning policies, funding, and partnerships are made. On that note, we’re excited to ring in our 30th year with our 2017 class of Echoing Green Fellows.
“Find the people in your community who are doing powerful work already and figure out how to tie those various threads together. I’ve been lucky to work alongside a group of people who were all thinking about this together and we all came from different sides of the community. We were all doing little pieces of the work, and what we’ve done is knit our work together to create a stronger whole.” – Lela Klein ’17, founder of the Greater Dayton Union Co-op Initiative
These 36 transformational leaders may be in early days with their organizations but, much like the larger Fellow community they join, they are positioned to embody their leadership and impact for a lifetime. Their promise is not just in their innovative approaches across a range of issues – it’s in how they view the role of collaboration, agency, and power in their work. We look forward to collaborating with each of these leaders to take action on creating a stronger whole as we support their journey along the way.