Good Fellows

Where social innovators go to find community, inspiration, and funds.

Illustration by Jo Szczepanska, senior industrial designer at frog

Fellowship status used to be bestowed upon
individuals affiliated with names like MacArthur or Guggenheim, but not anymore. Everyone from the White House to advertising conglomerates to conference programs offers sought-after fellowships to boost the human capital of an individual or organization. That said, not all fellowships are created equal. In fact, different fellowship programs have been established for a broad range of individuals and groups.

One group that seems to be particularly well-suited to such programs is that of social entrepreneurs. While the definition is debated, essentially, the social entrepreneur’s mission is to address a deep social problem and apply it to a market, industry, or customer need to create wide-spread system change. Instead of joining an existing non-profit, the social entrepreneur is looking to humanize capitalism and prioritize social impact as ROI, not just profit. Like any start-up, they face the hard challenges of bringing an idea to fruition, into a pilot phase, and then getting powerful backers on board. Cheryl Dorsey, president of the Echoing Green Foundation, a Manhattan-based organization that provides start-up funds and support for social entrepreneurs and their institutions, notes that this niche of budding business owners faces additional hurdles beyond the typical difficulties new businesses always face. “Social entrepreneurs are really pushing against the status quo in really powerful ways, and that is obviously incredibly threatening to the status quo,” she says. “So I think they’ve got an uphill battle in trying to change things when the equilibrium of the system is to keep them as they currently are.”

There are various types of fellowships that have been supporting social entrepreneurs for years at different phases and different needs. The TED Fellowship program, for example, supports all types of trailblazers, from scientists to artists to researchers. The biggest benefit of being a TED Fellow is attending its yearly conference, with all expenses paid, the potential to talk on the TED Fellows or TED University stage, and of course, being part of TED’s famously successful network. Although the fellowship is prestigious, social entrepreneurs are likely to need more than just a stage to scale their organizations.

Ashoka, an organization founded in 1980 by Bill Drayton, gives a three-year, stipend-funded fellowship to more established social entrepreneurs. However, rather than simply being an incubator for emerging social entrepreneurs, they look for entrepreneurs who have tested their ideas and are aiming to broaden their institutions with a new level of social impact.

So where do social entrepreneurs go for support in the early development stages of their organization? One support group is PopTech, a social-innovation network and thought-leadership forum. I recently attended its annual conference in Camden, Maine, and was able to join a group of 13 very diverse leaders who made up PopTech’s class of 2011 Social Innovation Fellows. For the past four years, PopTech has selected a group of Fellows to come to Camden for a week-long training program to discuss key challenges to business, mission statements, hiring, and prepping for a talk on the conference stage.

In the week leading up to the conference, the Fellows circled up in a large round room, with a panoramic view of the Atlantic Ocean, to discuss some of their key challenges and get invaluable training for the skills needed to sustain their organization. A faculty of experts from a variety of disciplines and organizations—sitting like stage moms on the outer ring of the circle—each took their turn to step into the center and conduct interactive presentations on everything from communications, hiring strategies, and legal advice to lessons in building trust with funders and conducting user-centered research. On the first day of the program, Kevin Starr, director of the Rainer Arnhold Fellows Programs and managing director of the Mulago foundation, worked with the Fellows to maximize the impact of their ventures by honing their mission statements to just eight words.

Starr is lovingly known as the toughest faculty member because of the way he challenges the fellows to look at their role in solving large humanitarian problems in a new way. “A lot of Fellows are sort of resistant to this process, because they see themselves as creating good on a lot of different fronts, and they see how interrelated all the problems are,” he says. “But the truth is they’re not going to accomplish anything unless they get laser-focused on what the problem is.”

The last benefit of the program is the opportunity the Fellows are given to present their organizations on stage, in a compelling way, to a conference audience packed with media, executive directors from reputable firms, heads of NGOs, policy makers, and investors, to name a few.

Josh Nesbit, a 2010 Fellow, founded Medic Mobile, an organization that creates technologies (primarily using FrontlineSMS software, the creation of another PopTech Fellow, Ken Banks) to enable community health workers to use mobile phones to coordinate patient care and better manage medical records in rural areas of developing countries. He recalls an expert faculty member from Duarte Design, the brains behind Al Gore’s famous Inconvenient Truth presentation, teaching the group storytelling techniques and what you can and can’t do in a five-minute presentation. “I’ve probably given my five minute PopTech talk 200 times since. And we [Mobile Medic] would not have grown as an organization if it weren’t for those five minutes and that ability to craft stories that help people relate to the importance of these issues,” Nesbit says.

The PopTech faculty, which includes some alumni from past Fellows programs, aren’t the only ones who provide valuable coaching and mentoring to the Fellows. Sometimes the sessions resemble a social entrepreneur group therapy session. This is because, with a touch of social engineering to design the program, PopTech finds fellows that can give advice to each other and possibly create future partnerships.

For those social entrepreneurs who are in an even earlier stage of development of their institution, there’s Echoing Green, a non-profit investor that provides seed capital and a large network to help launch new organizations. Echoing Green has been around since 1987 and has funded 500 fellows working around the globe. Echoing Green president and alumnus of the program, Cheryl Dorsey, says that, like the PopTech Fellows, they are investing heavily in the human capital and leadership side of the equation—supporting fellows who have system-changing ideas, but also the ability to execute. “When every step along the journey is fraught with danger and failure, the ability to not only be resilient and bounce back but see challenges as opportunities correlate with the fellows being successful.” A lot of Echoing Green Fellows are aiming to launch or build up an organization that will most likely be younger than two years old. The $80,000 that Echoing Green provides over the two years of the fellowship gives them the push to accomplish their goals. It also provides community networking and mentorship programs.

Chris Koch, a 2008 fellow who co-founded an organization called GTECH, however, says that besides getting the funding to give her the financial freedom to build the organization full-time, the fellowship gave her invaluable legitimacy. “Echoing Green is a good first step,” says Koch. “Based on having that sort of seal of approval and going through such a rigorous vetting process it was much easier for us to go back to the Pittsburgh foundation community and raise dollars for growth.”

Like PopTech, Ashoka, and the TED Fellow program, Echoing Green provides a community for the fellows to tap into, both for financial support and awareness, and to sustain emotional momentum. Adam Stofsky, executive creative director of the New Media Advocacy Project, spent his early days grinding alone in his basement before finding support through a 2009 Echoing Green fellowship. “Far more important than the money [from the fellowship] was the feeling of community and support when taking on this very financially scary thing,” he says. “Knowing there are people out there as crazy as you are helps.”

Change Agent
Rose Goslinga, Leader of the Syngenta Foundation’s Kilimo Salama

Raised by missionary parents in Tanzania, Rose grew up around development and people facing economic strife. Instead of turning to traditional humanitarian-aid work, Rose wanted to help people make a sustainable income. That led her to work on Kilimo Salama (which means safe agriculture in Swahili), a program that provides insurance for small-scale farmers in Kenya to help protect them against drought. Rather than following the traditional evaluation process that requires insurers to visit each farm, they’ve set up automated weather stations in the farm areas to measure rainfall and act as a proxy for what happens to the land. Using mobile phones to administer the micro-insurance, Rose and her team have ensured over 21,000 farmers.

Disruptive Move
Mohamed Ali Niang and Salif Niang, Founders of Malo Traders

Due to the economic crisis, people from the West Indies to India rioted against rising food prices in the 2008 Hunger Strikes. The Niang brothers witnessed the major waste of rice and the government’s response of unsustainability importing grain into their home country of Mali. This caused major strife for small-scale farmers who depended on the trade of rice for their livelihood. The brothers started Malo Traders to combat poverty and malnutrition by purchasing rice from farmers at a fair price and fortifying it with vitamins and minerals. They created the first brand of rice in Mali that meets international export quality standards. In another first, they use the entire rice plant: husk for biochar, bran to produce rice bran oil, and using the “cake” as animal feed. Their cradle-to-cradle approach maximizes the plant while helping to get small scale farmers on their feet.

Big Impact
Josh Nesbit, CEO of Mobile Medic

Nesbit was traveling along the typical path of becoming a doctor: going to Stanford, spending nights in a chemistry lab, studying international health. But, after taking a trip to Malawi for HIV research, where he learned that community health workers walked more then 40 miles each week to deliver HIV patient medical records, he decided to refocus. He noticed that he had a better mobile signal in this remote village than in Palo Alto. This led him to launch Medic Mobile, a non-profit that harnesses mobile technology and the software of Frontline SMS to help health workers communicate more efficiently, coordinate patient care, and provide diagnostics using low-cost handsets. Mobile Medic has connected the rural poor with medical professionals all over the world, including Malawi, Uganda, Cameroon, and Haiti.

Kristina Loring is the senior content and community manager at frog.


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