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State of Social Entrepreneurship 2017

It takes more than just a good idea to achieve positive social change: leaders need financial resources, support that helps develop and strengthen their leadership skills, and engaged networks that are open to challenging and testing assumptions. It’s something Echoing Green knows well after 30 years of building a community of solutions-oriented people who bring a diversity of perspectives, experiences, and backgrounds to addressing problems. These leaders innovate purposefully, taking considered strides to understand the contexts in which they operate and, when necessary, disrupt systems for the better.

From Echoing Green’s perspective, understanding the conditions that social change leaders encounter in their work is critical for improving our supports to the ecosystem of social entrepreneurs, funders, and collaborators. Over the past few years, we’ve turned our attention toward our annual pool of Fellowship applicants, who represent thousands of aspiring and active social entrepreneurs, to glean new lessons and consider areas where we can deepen our impact. This year, Echoing Green received 2,879 submissions for the 2017 Fellowship class. Applicants from 164 countries shared the problems they’ve identified and why they are ready to seize this moment to address unmet needs in their communities. In the spirit of learning from our application process and the themes it can reveal, we’re sharing observations from this year’s data which we believe are meaningful to Echoing Green and the social innovation ecosystem.

What We’re Noticing

Program Area Growth: Civil & Human Rights

As principles, human rights are meant to guarantee some our most fundamental freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom from violence, persecution, and discrimination, access to education and healthcare, and others. But for social entrepreneurs–people who can blur the boundaries between the civil, private, and social sectors–when there are failures to protect those rights, there are people committed to addressing those fault lines.

Among this year’s applicant pool, we observed a growth in the number of proposed organizations that will focus on civil and human rights issues. This year marks a four-year high (nearly 7 percent) of organizations in our pool identifying Civil & Human Rights as their issue area of focus since 2012. In a time when forced refugee displacement is hitting record highs, it’s no surprise that we’re seeing more people launching organizations to combat the negative effects that this has on these populations. There are 56 applicants within this year’s pool focusing their efforts among immigrant and refugee communities. As governments and social movements around the world increasingly adopt hostile attitudes towards immigrants, close their borders to refugees, and make cuts to the agencies which support both communities, we are reminded of the importance of collective impact in seeding and growing positive social movements that seek to uphold dignity, freedom, and opportunity among people from all walks.

Gender Representation

There are 10 million businesses owned by women in the United States alone. They represent a significant–and growing–economic force, responsible for a total of 1.6 trillion dollars in business in 2015. But the reality is that women are globally underrepresented in the leadership of governments and private sector institutions. For example, a study from UN Women shows that female representation in political leadership has stagnated globally since 2015. And in the private sector, the Center for American Progress notes that only 14.6 percent of women in the U.S. workforce hold executive positions.

With these statistics in hand, we need to be mindful of how Echoing Green and our peers can mitigate the negative effects of these gender disparities in our own work. One way is to ensure social entrepreneurship is an accessible pathway for all. This year, self-identified females comprise over 44 percent of our pool, continuing a trend of year-over-year growth, while the largest proportional growth of female applicants is to our Climate Fellowship. We’re pleased to see this growth trend endure this year, but it is clear there is still work to do to improve this representation across our Black Male Achievement and Climate Fellowships in particular. Representation, inclusion, and agency in decision-making rooms (be it among social impact-first businesses, corporations, or the highest levels of government) are critical to ensuring that the decisions made are truly representative of the needs of the people they actually affect.

An Update: Access to Networks & Funds

Last year we highlighted data which showed evidence of fundraising barriers women and people of color face prior to applying for an Echoing Green Fellowship. This year, as expected, our analysis shows these disparities persist. For example, among our U.S.-based applications, 55 percent of self-identified white applicants applied with funds already raised compared with 44 percent of self-identified black applicants. This disparity applies to the amounts raised as well: 31 percent of white applicants had raised funds over $50,000 compared to 14 percent of black applicants. At the intersection of gender and race, these disparities are amplified. In a report released last year by Echoing Green Fellow Kathryn Finney’s digitalundivided, they highlight that “Black women founders are not raising nearly enough to even test their ideas in the market, and even the best Black women-led start-ups (as indicated by the amount raised) do not raise as much as failed start-ups led by others, namely white men.”

The world is not equitable, and while we are committed to supporting leaders who act to address inequity, support alone is not enough to tip the scales toward positive social and environmental outcomes. While this work is happening, it’s important that the barriers and funding disparities that limit opportunity are also addressed. By continuing our efforts to identify how these disparities show up in data, organizations like ours are better able to support individuals and programs across sectors to address these issues.

Looking Ahead​

In an ideal world, social entrepreneurship allows for driven individuals to take initiative and build organizations that address the needs of their communities freed from constraints that might otherwise limit them. To get to this ideal, we are committed to doing the work to lessen any restrictions that may be placed on their potential, including widening the space and deepening the resources to help leaders and collaborators operate to their greatest potential. The reach and efficacy of people like our applicants and Fellows often depend on the extent to which we–as individuals, institutions, and societies–are willing to listen to them, support them, and get out of their way.

Our data and observations, and those of our partners in the field, show us that funding disparities exist, that inclusion and diversity are not universally regarded as benefits, and that representation in decision-making is far from equitable. Data tells us what we should know, but knowing is not enough. We have to act on these findings with a deep understanding of the contexts of the systems. Using the data at our fingertips in tandem with learning from our engaged ecosystem, Echoing Green can better structure our support, and along with our peers, help gather resources, develop these leaders, and take actions that remind them and their communities that they will not be alone in their struggle.

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