Too often, the nonprofit and global development sector is focused myopically on the problems of today. In the wake of COVID-19, we have a fleeting opportunity to plan for the future before other crises hit. That means cultivating the leadership capacity in the people who will be in this fight for the long term, bringing new ideas, bold visions and lived experience to bear on advancing equity. Yet historically, investment in leadership development, especially for early to mid-career professionals, has been sparse.
Resourcing rising leaders with the capital, networks and knowledge required to develop their leadership and create systemwide change has been the mission of Echoing Green since 1987. This approach has successfully prepared more than 800 social innovators (Echoing Green Fellows) to disrupt the status quo and create positive change in their communities. Starting in the summer of 2020, Echoing Green Fellows began sharing that they had received donations from billionaire philanthropists MacKenzie Scott and Dan Jewett. In each, the sentiment was the same: I feel seen.
Scott’s distribution of $12 billion since 2019 to more than 465 nonprofit organizations will provide the necessary capital to help these organizations fund operations and scale. And in her latest Medium post, Scott also draws attention to the importance of investing in proximate leaders for transformational change: “The leadership of people directly experiencing inequities is essential, both because it is informed by insights no one else can contribute, and because it seeds power and opportunity within the community itself.”
This focus on equipping diverse leaders is at the heart of the work of Echoing Green and one of our Fellow-founded organizations, Global Health Corps (GHC). As the world emerges from the pandemic and an overdue reckoning on the nature and role of philanthropy in creating a more equitable world, Scott’s investments in organizations like Echoing Green and GHC highlight three important lessons: next generation leadership is key to a more equitable future, patient capital is transformative capital, and unrestricted giving unlocks systems change.
The pandemic exposed the make-or-break nature of leadership: effective, collaborative leaders in the right places at the right times saved untold lives, while poor leadership exacted high costs. Yet no one is born knowing how to build and lead strong teams, manage resources and make strategic decisions — these capacities must be cultivated.
Historically, giving in support of leadership development organizations has lagged far behind direct service nonprofits, where return on investment is easier to see and assess with current impact frameworks. However, in order to drive transformative social change, funders must also increase giving toward organizations developing the world’s next generation of leaders who will shape a more just, equitable and sustainable future.
In 2009, GHC’s co-founders were awarded an Echoing Green Fellowship, receiving seed-stage funding and access to a community of social entrepreneurs working to create change all over the world. Since then, GHC has built a global network of more than 1,100 young professionals through its own fellowship and alumni programs focused in Malawi, Rwanda, Uganda, Zambia and the United States. GHC strengthens rising leaders’ ability to learn, grow, collaborate and advance equity across health ecosystems within their communities, with 74 percent of GHC alumni working together over the last year.
Both Echoing Green’s and GHC’s success demonstrates how the provision of support, guidance and access to the right networks can lay the foundations for years of impact and a ripple effect of change. Many organizations founded and co-led by GHC alumni also received funding from Scott in this round.
“Patient capital” sets the stage for longer-term yields and establishes a framework for future leaders to build on as they continue their work.
Here’s what that looks like in practice: Echoing Green Fellows have leveraged our investment in them to raise more than $7.5 billion in service of social change. Notably, in a sector marked by frequent burnout and high turnover, 70 percent of Echoing Green-backed organizations are still operating today. It’s this strategy of early investment in long-term leadership that has prepared Fellows to be in the right place at the right time to confront some of our most pressing global challenges.
Adaptability and resilience are also hallmarks of GHC’s proximate leaders — nearly 90 percent of GHC fellows continue to work in global health and development post-fellowship. During the pandemic, the GHC network moved at the speed of trust. Alumni across the globe shared resources, learnings and connections to enable rapid life-saving responses, from ensuring delivery of cancer treatment during the lockdown in Kigali to providing PPE for public transportation operators in Lusaka.
The biggest takeaway for the philanthropic community: equipping a diverse cadre of rising leaders with the skills and resources to drive systems change across their careers is key to preparing for future health crises before they hit.
The growth potential of social impact work is contingent on a funding community that understands that frontline leadership can accomplish more with a primary focus on the mission. Unrestricted gifts shift the balance and provide organizational leaders with more time and resources to dive deeper into mission-building work. Founders will find that they can maintain the momentum of discovery and productivity without needing to divert attention toward satisfying sometimes rigorous reporting requirements.
For example, Scott’s $6 million gift will unlock GHC’s ability to shift the focus from the fast and furious task of keeping operations running to the longer-term goals of strengthening organizational sustainability, infusing more talented young leaders into global health, and strengthening its network of alumni rising to leadership roles across their careers.
Scott’s $10 million gift to Echoing Green in 2020 provided the early anchor funding to launch the organization’s $75 million Racial Equity Philanthropic Fund that will significantly expand the organization’s impact and ability to mobilize funds to support leaders with bold ideas for advancing racial equity in the United States and globally.
At the end of the day, unrestricted gifts are about trust. Scott is modeling what it looks like to trust organizations, and their leaders, to create impact. She is also modeling what it looks like to approach philanthropy and social change with an abundance mindset. She is not pitting one nonprofit against another to fight for funding; she is saying there are abundant resources to tackle these issues together, and we can solve the challenges of today while seeding the leadership for tomorrow.
Philanthropists passionate about systems change are starting to recognize that systems don’t have agency. People, working through systems, create change. People alone can make decisions to change systems or build ones to create more equity in the world.
We must prioritize investing in seemingly less tangible causes like leadership development in addition to what are traditionally considered urgent appeals. Long term, flexible giving is key to the identification and development of a strong bench of leaders advancing equity at the intersection of health, education, race, gender and more.
What Scott has shown us is that an investment in this work does more than simply support organizational operations — it unlocks the potential of systems-minded leaders to drive a ripple effect of change.