GA’s Culture of Philanthropy: Echoing Green at 25
General Atlantic's commitment to social philanthropy is woven into the fabric of the firm. Inspired by the legacy of Chuck Feeney and The Atlantic Philanthropies , GA has been instrumental in founding and building several philanthropic organizations, including Echoing Green, Venture Philanthropy Partners, and DonorsChoose.
Echoing Green, founded by GA in 1987, identifies, funds and supports emerging social entrepreneurs launching new ventures to attack the world's toughest problems. As the organization celebrates the accomplishments of its first 25 years, it serves as a compelling case study that exemplifies how GA thinks about and acts on its commitment to philanthropy.
Echoing Green was born from a simple yet powerful idea: GA's investment model and expertise could help young social entrepreneurs to drive social change. Over the past 25 years, Echoing Green - its name borrowed from William Blake's poem about creating a better world - has provided more than 500 social entrepreneurs working in more than 40 countries with $31 million in seed funding and customized support services.
GA Managing Director David Hodgson has been involved with Echoing Green since its conception and today serves as its chairman. Recently, he paused to reflect on Echoing Green's history and growth, its role in promoting social entrepreneurship and its impact on GA's culture.
What was the focus of Echoing Green's efforts in the early years?
It was an interesting time of experimenting with how to reach social entrepreneurs and identify opportunities with the best fit. We relied heavily on friends who could put us in touch with talented people that were doing something new and needed support. Given that ours was a completely new concept, there wasn't any way to advertise that we were open for business. It wasn't like people were out looking for angel investors in new not-for-profits. It sounds sensible today, but at the time people didn't know that money for this purpose existed outside traditional funding sources like foundations and corporations.
Early on, we met in pretty quick succession the founders of City Year, the founder of Teach for America and several other ventures that became the models for social entrepreneurship. These were young, very bright, very driven entrepreneurs with compelling concepts for tackling big issues like healthcare for at-risk communities, education in low-income school districts and the environment. They needed funding, but more than anything, they needed sponsorship, a seal of approval that gave them the credibility to tap more traditional funding sources as they grew. If we accomplished anything in those first four or five years, it was becoming one of those sponsors.
Echoing Green's process for selecting its Fellows each year has become the gold standard in the field. What's the process and why is it so important to your success?
Echoing Green's selection process is very similar to how we evaluate private sector entrepreneurs at GA, and the elements haven't changed much over time: You consider the size of the problem. If you have limited resources to create the most social good, you want to attack the toughest problems with the biggest possible solutions. You consider how unique the proposed solution is. Is this an area that requires innovation, or would it be smarter to stick with existing solutions? You consider whether the solution is practical. Will it really work?
Then there's the revenue picture: Does the value proposition make sense to potential funders? Are there people who would provide resources to implement the idea on a grand scale? One of GA's early contributions to the dialogue with these young entrepreneurs was to push them to develop a sound revenue strategy for raising money from other sources to drive their concept forward. That discipline, which was completely new to the field at the time, remains an important part of the selection process today.
The final piece is what I think of as the secret sauce in Echoing Green - the assessment of the entrepreneur. As is the case at GA, we do a broad evaluation of the individual or team and their ability to execute the task at hand. What motivates them? How aligned with the organizational mission are they? How well do they manage people? Are they capable of selling the idea? What's their passion for and commitment to the mission? Getting at the answers to these questions is a process we understand very well because we do it in our own business all the time.
What are Echoing Green's priorities under its current strategy?
It's an exciting, busy time in Echoing Green's development. We're enhancing the support we give Fellows once they're selected. We're making the selection process itself value-added for all of the applicants by providing plenty of feedback, helping them to become more appealing to funders. We recently launched an alumni program to leverage and support that community, now more than 500 strong. Just last year, we introduced our Work on Purpose program to help young people build meaningful careers in the social sector.
We're also exploring how best to share our secret sauce and lessons learned so other organizations can benefit from them. Over the past year, we've started to do that through a technical assistance program with organizations developing fellowship programs. For example, Echoing Green was the engine inside the Open Society's Black Male Achievement Fellowship program, running the selection process right alongside them. It's been exciting to see the success of that program in its first year.
What's your vision for the future?
Looking ahead, I see Echoing Green helping to shape the conversation around social entrepreneurship and social change as the landscape continues to evolve. I'll give you a couple of examples of what I mean.
For-profit models in the traditionally not-for-profit sector have been garnering a lot of attention. It's not always easy to conjure up these initiatives, but developing ways to generate new revenue streams outside the organization's core mission is now part of the sophisticated social entrepreneur's tool kit. If you can create a venture with traditional commercial characteristics and attract capital in a totally different way, you can spend more time fulfilling your mission and less time fund raising. We've seen a huge increase in the number of young social entrepreneurs pursuing this hybrid model, and we'll be on the forefront of shaping that trend as it plays out.
We'll also improve accountability for not-for-profits. The focus over the past few years on performance measurement will only get more intense in the years to come. We've identified appropriate metrics for individual organizations, but we don't yet have a way of comparing them. While we have numbers that let us compare a company in South America that does one thing with a business in the UK that does something completely different, there's no such thing in the social sector. How do you compare a program for treating diabetes in Mexico with one designed to change attitudes toward death row inmates in Pakistan with one bringing new teachers into Newark? Because this generation wants to know, we'll be forced to come up with a way to make these comparisons.
What impact has Echoing Green and your other philanthropic activities had on GA and its culture?
Looking back, Chuck Feeney's practical nature permeates GA's whole approach to philanthropy. It's never been about grand design. It's been about how we could use our resources and our skills practically to help those in need and advance causes that are meaningful to us as people, and that resonates well, I think, with our people across the firm.
With Echoing Green, it's easy to be energized and inspired. While there's a consistent theme, the way we execute on the mission and the kinds of problems our Fellows address change each year as the worm turns. Together, candidates and Fellows give us a unique window on emerging trends in social entrepreneurship, and the people are terrific - always interesting and fun to be around.
Echoing Green's impact is evident in the achievements of its Fellows. By year two, the majority of Fellows raise three times their Echoing Green support. By year five, after the completion of their Fellowship, Echoing Green-funded organizations raise, on average, thirty-seven times their Echoing Green seed investment. Collectively, the ventures that Echoing Green Fellows have launched have gone on to raise more than $1 billion in additional funding, and two out of three Echoing Green-funded organizations reach sustainability.
If you would like any information about Echoing Green or any of GA's additional philanthropic efforts, please contact your GA team.