Investing in Social Change

Echoing Green is a nonprofit innovator that underwrites social entrepreneurs -- and builds a supporting community.

They are the sort who make you want to chuck everything and join their crusades. In the streets of the dingy Brooklyn, New York neighborhood of Red Hook, Ian Marvy is putting teenagers to work in organic gardens. Karen Tse, a lawyer and minister, is building networks of public defenders in Cambodia, China, and Vietnam. Nicole Rinke, just out of law school, is battling big mining companies in Nevada over pollution.

They are all social entrepreneurs, and since 1987, the Echoing Green Foundation has funded more than 350 of them -- smart, often obsessive young people with solutions to problems that others prefer to overlook. Echoing Green gives individuals seed financing of $30,000 a year for two years, plus health benefits and management support. Just as important, Echoing Green "fellows" win access to a community of like-minded activists who lend ideas, experience, and solace.

Echoing Green was an early pioneer of "venture philanthropy," an attempt to apply the principles of venture capital to the nonprofit sector. Founder Ed Cohen was a principal of venture fund General Atlantic Partners, which, with its philanthropic cousin, Atlantic Philanthropies, bankrolled Echoing Green from the start.

Proving Market Value

Next year, though, Atlantic Philanthropies will pull the plug, draining nearly half of Echoing Green's $2 million annual budget. Atlantic's exit isn't unexpected. Still, the shift is forcing Echoing Green to test its viability in the real world for the first time.

"This is an opportunity to prove our market value," says Cheryl Dorsey, who has served as Echoing Green's president since 2002. As a young medical student in 1992, Dorsey used an Echoing Green grant to establish a "Family Van" program that brought medical professionals to low-income Boston neighborhoods. Now she must quickly raise the organization's profile and broaden its funding base.

Over the years, Echoing Green's grants have gone toward some of the most effective new nonprofit ventures around. Teach for America, which last year placed about 1,700 volunteers in schools across the nation, and City Year, a thriving Boston-based youth-service group, both sprang from early Echoing Green investments. According to Dorsey, 76% of the organizations funded by Echoing Green since 1991 are still in operation -- and half of the original fellows are still running the programs that they started.

Philanthropy Network

Echoing Green's funding serves at least two functions. First, it gets programs started. Second, Echoing Green's endorsement helps attract other donors: In Arms Reach, for example, a group funded by Echoing Green that provides after-school and weekend classes to kids whose parents are in prison, has since won gifts from Peter Greer, managing partner of Bear Stearns.

Echoing Green fellows say that the greatest value comes from the network of social entrepreneurs. A new class of Echoing Green fellows is selected each June; this year, from nearly 900 applicants, 30 grant finalists from around the world gather in Manhattan for a weekend that mixes competition and camaraderie.

For many, the bonds forged that weekend turn into strong and lasting relationships. "It's just exhausting and lonely doing this stuff," says Vanessa Kirsch, who got a grant from Echoing Green in the early 1990s and who now heads New Profit Inc., a Cambridge, Massachusetts - based venture-philanthropy outfit. "All of a sudden, I had a community of people who understood that." The community created by Echoing Green will persevere. Now it's up to Echoing Green to get the support that it needs to do the same.

Contact Cheryl Dorsey by email (cheryldorsey@echoinggreen.org), or visit Echoing Green on the Web (www.echoinggreen.org).

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