Echoing Green: Funding Social Entrepreneurs Since 1987

Jul 21, 2014

Wendy Kopp, the founder and C.E.O. of Teach for America, was selected as an Echoing Green Global Fellow in 1991. Photo credit: Scott Eells/Bloomberg

From inventors like Thomas Edison to innovators like Bill Gates, entrepreneurs have long been a driving force of U.S. economic growth. Yet more and more, entrepreneurs are turning their attention toward social issues, as they strive to solve major societal problems through the lens of business.

Though the idea of social innovation is now firmly entrenched in the zeitgeist, it is not exactly a new concept. In fact, social entrepreneurs have existed for quite a while, as have the groups that support and finance their ambitious agendas.

Founded in 1987, Echoing Green remains among the most respected and successful organizations in the social innovation sector. Over the past three decades, Echoing Green has backed some 640 social entrepreneurs through its various fellowship programs. These entrepreneurs, who operate in 40 different countries, have received more than $33 million in start-up funding. This year alone, Echoing Green plans to administer $3.8 million in financing through its fellowship programs, which receive thousands of applications each year.

As the social innovation space has evolved, so too has Echoing Green, which underwent a major restructuring in 2002, when current president Cheryl Dorsey assumed her role. With Dorsey at the helm, the organization overhauled its business model and vastly improved its development arm, a turn of events documented in a Harvard Business School case study.

Though its approach to fundraising has changed, its mission remains very clear, says Lara Galinksy, a senior vice president at Echoing Green who arrived at the organization when it was in a state of flux. “Our mission statement is to unleash next generation talent to solve the world’s biggest problems,” she says. “While we do this in a variety of ways, we’re most well known for is our seed funding program.”

Accepting approximately 1% of applicants, Echoing Green’s fellowship programs are undoubtedly competitive. Unsurprisingly, it has produced a long list of notable alums, as the organization has backed social entrepreneurs who have gone on to found Teach for America, City Year, College Summit, and Citizen Schools, among many other ventures. Echoing Green’s own success is tied to its ability to identify these kinds of boundary-pushing innovators.

“Social entrepreneurship is focused on identifying great people with great ideas and backing them,” Galinsky explains. “These are particular people who are bold and have a healthy relationship with risk-taking. Our society needs them. We don’t necessarily have a research and development sector for social change, and it’s important because we constantly need to test ideas that have a fighting chance of making the biggest difference.”

The need for social innovation has become all the more pressing over the past six years, as the economic impact of the recession continues to be felt across the large swaths of the U.S., as well as around the globe. Organizations like Echoing Green are enabling entrepreneurs to tackle problems like poverty, access to capital, and educational disparities through not only funding opportunities, but also mentorship programs, Galinsky says.

“We need people to see themselves through the lens that this is a possibility,” she stresses. “We need an ecosystem because not everyone will have those ideas. It’s important to put a lot of prestige and gratitude on taking whatever path makes the most sense. If humans make these problems, humans can solve them. It’s about ingenuity and breakthrough, and pushing back the status quo.” 

Echoing Green is not alone in its mission to spur social innovation. In New York, the Robin Hood Foundation similarly works to tackle serious issues like crime and recidivism by providing funding and support to social entrepreneurs.

Looking toward the future, Echoing Green shows no signs of letting up, as interest in social innovation is poised to continue on its upward trajectory. Reflecting back on the organization’s storied history, Galinsky is circumspect about which fellows stand out among the many success stories.

“That’s like asking who’s your favorite child?” They’re all amazing in different ways,” Galinsky says, sounding very much like a proud mother. 

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