Nonprofit Sector

A Moment Made for Social Innovators

March 18, 2021

Where We Go From Here

Cheryl L. Dorsey, President, Echoing Green

Cheryl L. Dorsey, President, Echoing Green, believes in the power of social innovation to challenge injustice in America and around the world. To make change we must value the lived experiences of people closest to pressing issues, Dorsey says, investing in leaders that have the trust of their communities. Even best-in-class leaders of color that come out of Echoing Green’s rigorous fellow selection process face staggering funding disparities when compared to their white counterparts. To fix this, says Dorsey, we must fund these leaders of color, provide support beyond dollars, create unapologetically Black and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) spaces where folks can be in community with one another, and recognize the role of equitable intermediaries.

Dorsey sees this moment as a fork in the road as we find our way forward: “It’s gonna take a lot of work, there’s a tremendous amount of pain for far too many people to get there, but I think it’s the work we have to do in the world at the moment.”

In this video:

  • How Dorsey and Echoing Green “walk the talk” of racial equity, and how they’re bringing social innovation to combat the complex and existential challenges we face today. (0:21)
  • Why the concept of proximity is so important to this work, and why power should be turned over to groups that have historically been marginalized. (2:55)
  • The racial funding gap: What funding challenges Black Echoing Green fellows faced despite being at the top of their field, and how Echoing Green teamed up with The Bridgespan Group to put a number on racial funding disparities. (4:35)
  • How funding and supporting leaders of color has to change to create equitable outcomes. (8:37)
  • Why this is a moment made for social innovators. (12:43)


ANTONY: I’ve got the glasses reflection thing happening again, because it’s ... Now it’s my window.

CHERYL: No worries.

ANTONY: Let me just try and close it, maybe?


ANTONY: One thing I really admire about you is you’ve been walking the talk of racial equity longer than a lot of other people have been talking the talk. One thing I always enjoy is whenever you announce your new fellows, it’s always exciting to just look at the thumbnails and see reflected back on the screen a panoply that looks like America and the world, and I don’t see that in any other incubator. Why was that important to do? And then I’d love to hear about what it took to pull that off.

CHERYL: Yeah, so, in some ways I will say that has always been part of Echoing Green’s DNA – and this predated me as an Echoing Green fellow when I was selected in 1992 – and I am always very clear about saying that I watched and noted that Echoing Green was really born and forged at the intersection of social justice and innovation. So it’s always been there, but I think over time, once I became staff and really got enmeshed in this community, it became an interrogation for me about the possibility and promise of social innovation, right? I think we all know that social innovation – we talk about it as it’s an approach to problem solving that really focuses on creating bold, audacious, positive social change. But I think – almost 20 years ago, I started to think, “Well, what if you could actually use this powerful, cross-sector, alliance-based approach to end racial and class injustice? What if you looked at the key tools and strategies of the 20th century: community organizing, rights-based movements, advocacy, and add to your quiver social innovation?” And I thought it was worth that interrogation. I believe all of those strategies help bring the country forward, but it’s increasingly clear to me that in a moment when our problems are ever-more complex, many of these problems are in fact existential, that these tools that many of us relied on over the course of the 20th century are still necessary but they’re no longer sufficient. They’re just not enough given what we have to confront and slay. And I just truly, increasingly believed that social innovation had to get into the fight, and the army that we had to field had to look like the communities that we were working with. And so I think that we do – that’s the straight line between where we started and where we’ve come to today.

ANTONY: Not everyone would agree, though, that the leadership, even in social innovation, would necessarily have to come from the community. There are other people who would say, “Let’s get the smartest, most well-trained, technocratic experts from Stanford Business School or somewhere else, and let’s give them the resources, because they have all the skills and expertise to bring to these communities. It sounds like you would reject that point of view. Why is that?

CHERYL: I want everyone to be engaged, right? But I reject it in part … I think number one, and I think this is why – one of the reasons why – Bryan Stevenson is so incredibly brilliant. Because he named and provided, gave cache to this notion around proximity as a valuable asset and as a real currency, and I think he articulated it perfectly. So the lived experience of being proximate to an issue and community that allows you to have full faith and trust by those that you’re working alongside of I think is incredibly important. And when so much of the work around dismantling structural racism relates to building power, incumbent upon that process is ceding, sharing, turning over power to groups that have formerly been marginalized, and that’s just the work. And so there’s no way around it. You’ve just got to go straight through it, and you’ve got to cede power, and that means you’ve got to have a diverse group of leaders of the communities being served to get the work done.

ANTONY: It also strikes me that if the premise of your work is, we need to mobilize an army, as you described it, of social innovators to dismantle the systems of structural racism, one of the challenges that you’ve identified is the funding system. And so before anyone can dismantle a system, they are already constrained by a social sector funding system that is racist, and that does withhold both money and control from the very people who you need to resource to liberate their potential. You recently took that to the next level of prominence by publishing an article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, on, “The Racial Funding Gap Can’t Continue.” Tell us about what motivated you to do that research and what you learned form that work.

CHERYL: Echoing Green has spent the better part of a decade annually looking at our applicant pool, usually from semi-finalist through those we select, just sort of culling key trends and findings. About a decade ago, we started noticing, “Huh.” We work really hard to find best-in-class talent and by the time you’re selected as an Echoing Green fellow, less than 1 or 2 percent of those who apply actually end up as fellows. Yet and still, we also started to notice that finalists and fellows were just hitting the wall in terms of funding disparities relative to their white counterparts. And, you know, in our way we just sort of put it out there in a blog post annually, tried to show up at conferences and say, “Hey, guys. There’s a problem here.” But it was really interesting when we were approached by Bridgespan, that was on its own racial equity journey, and that had research capabilities beyond Echoing Green’s work as practitioners. So the ability to come together with, in fact, in some ways the most pristine and perfect sample set you could imagine, right? So best-in-class leaders, unquestioned, these are the crème de la crème, and the fact that they were still having trouble raising money just sort of solidified and underscored research that others have done for years, whether it’s Race Forward or ABFE, or First Nations Development Institute, Candid, so many others. We all sort of knew it, but in some ways it was the crystallization through this perfect sample set of best-in-class leaders. And then I think the surprising thing really was the stark disparity in revenue differential between whites and Blacks as it related to unrestricted net assets. So the finding that you alluded to that Black-led organizations in our portfolio raised 24 percent less in terms of revenue than their white-led counterparts in their three years following application to Echoing Green – but when you looked at unrestricted net assets it was 76 percent smaller. And then, like, the punch in the face, you’re like, “Wait a minute,” when you look at our Black Male Achievement fellows, who were a group of Echoing Green fellows that were focused on improving life outcomes of men and boys of color in this country, the statistics were even worse. The Black-led organizations in the BMA fellowship were raising 45 percent less in terms of revenue than their white-led counterparts – but 91 percent less in terms of unrestricted net assets. That’s gob smacking. Like, just shocking, shocking, shocking. And you’ve already mentioned this, Antony: this all, to us, the lightbulb moment that these disproportionate numbers are proxies for lack of trust. And you just see it time and time again. I think that that stat around unrestricted net assets and disparity, I think was really quite surprising, and disheartening.

ANTONY: So what could you all and others – what are you all going to do and what do you need others to do to change that so we don’t have the same data when you do the research 10 years from now.

CHERYL: Yeah, right. So I think one thing is by doing conversations like this. You can’t fix what you don’t know about and you’re not talking about and what you can’t measure. Well, we’ve measured it, and we’re beginning to talk about it. And it’s been wonderful for me as a nonprofit person to engage with funders in a way, honestly, I haven’t had in 20-plus years of doing this, right? To be in communication, to be in conversation, and to have access with funders is just sort of a brand new experience for me, for us, and Echoing Green, so we’re just trying to take full advantage of this moment. So part of it is talking about it. And again, showing grace. It’s clear that some of it is lack of knowledge, so you provide knowledge. And then, truly the paralysis around, “And I don’t know what to do.” So providing steps on how you lean in and get it done. From Echoing Green’s perspective, after Mr. Floyd was murdered, we were like – we are an action-oriented community, our stance is always, “what are we going to do now?” So just trying to think though some simple steps that we could provide in terms of a template or road map for our colleagues across the social impact sector.

One thing you can do is start writing a check. Just start writing – just move money. Right? Just start moving money. Invest. And invest significantly in Black leaders, Black-led organizations, networks like Echoing Green that have a lot of terrific leaders. I loved the giving guide that ABFE did in partnership with Bridgespan recently. So there are extraordinary groups out there who deserve support, so support them now. I think another thing that we can start to think about is changing the way we support Black-led organizations, including the approach to capacity-building. Echoing Green has always talked about our leadership development approach. We talk about leadership development through an equity frame very much built on social determinants of health, sort of a holistic approach to leadership development that really centers the role of trauma – intergenerational trauma – and how you need to think through leadership development strategies, and recognizing that investment requires more than dollars. You’ve got to invest in your own learning, you’ve got to invest in all the wraparound supports for these leaders. And that’s absolutely necessary. I think there’s also sort of help building up the ecosystem, creating mechanisms for racial equity organizations, leaders of color to support one another. So how do you, as one of my colleagues says, create these unapologetically Black spaces, BIPOC spaces, where folks can be in community with one another, learning together, building power together, sharing the resources they need to maintain and continue to do this work. And then trying to be available to and thought partners with funders. You know, we often get the question of, “Why should we invest in an intermediary like Echoing Green?” and I presume you must get this question too, Antony. And my goodness, gracious, the notion! The distance between the rooftops and the grassroots is a chasm. It’s just a chasm. And I don’t care how woke you are or how woke you think you are, there are just some things that you are not in a position to do. So I think there’s a real role for social impact intermediaries that are tethered to communities, that have built deep trust, that are facile and responsive in a way that some of these funders cannot be, and that are just in the struggle with these organizations and make it worth the kind of investment that is needed in organizations like Echoing Green and NFF.

ANTONY: In what ways has this year changed either your sense about optimism about what’s possible – perhaps even elevated your sense of what is possible because of the way people have responded? What do you believe now that you didn’t believe or know on March 1 this year?

CHERYL: I was a history and science major in college and weirdly spent a lot of time studying pandemics, studying the bubonic plague. And the premier scholar around the role of epidemics and pandemics in society, Frank Snowden, talked about the transformative power of these sorts of events, right? And there’s sort of two pathways, the fork in the road, in moments like these, where there’s the opportunity for profound transformation. You know, it’s out of the bubonic plague that we got a lot of the essential tenets of today’s public health system: social distancing and wearing masks. But also terrible, terrible hate crimes against the Other because people were afraid of what had befallen them in their communities. And the question is: What road will we take? And this feels a moment made for social innovators, who are comfortable with disruption, who understand the role of creative destruction, who are thinking of new, better, best. So that gives me some hope and things to hang onto as we try to reimagine so many systems that simply work for too few of us. So there’s real opportunity to come out on the other side in a way that’s more inclusive, more sustainable, and more just. It’s gonna take a lot of work, there’s a tremendous amount of pain for far too many people to get there, but I think it’s the work we have to do in the world at the moment.

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