Follow the Leader? Why Social Entrepreneurs Must Collaborate

The fast approaching January 6th deadline for applications for the Echoing Green Fellowship, which awards the founders of socially innovative organizations up to $90,000 in funding, prompts me to wonder: Are we actually thwarting potential by putting too much stock in the individual, as opposed to rewarding collaborative forms leadership?

Thousands of social entrepreneurs across the country are furiously working on their applications, as they do throughout the year for the recent explosion of other such fellowships and prizes, offered by organizations including the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, the Schwab Foundation, Ashoka and the Skoll Foundation. While I could not be more supportive of these prizes and awards, I do fear that they are leading to a cult of personality regarding social entrepreneurs, which not only contributes to burnout, but undervalues the leadership potential of so many others who are vital to founders' success in their missions. While social entrepreneurs are accomplishing great things, from my own experience, and from my study of social entrepreneurship, I have observed that they would be capable of so much more if the community put more emphasis on collaboration.

Don't get me wrong. These awards have made the difference in helping many organizations to thrive, or even to get off the ground. Take 2009 Echoing Green Fellow Natalie Bridgeman Fields, who founded the Accountability Counsel. Natalie's organization provides legal representation to dozens of grassroots communities around the world who have suffered serious environmental and human rights violations by multinational corporations. For example, in 2012 Accountability Counsel successfully stopped the construction of a hydroelectric project in Oaxaca, Mexico that would have deprived local indigenous villagers of access to clean water. Natalie says that without Echoing Green's support, she would never have been able to get the organization past the first hurdle.

But at the same time, these prizes have encouraged a view of social entrepreneurs as indomitable leaders who crafted brilliant new ideas all on their own, and then made them work through the sheer forces of will and charisma. This hero model creates massive expectations for what individual leaders can achieve, which contributes to them carrying too much weight on their shoulders, rather than seeking out more input from collaborators. Studies have shown that as a result the median tenure of executive directors is between just three and four years, hobbling so many organizations with frequent executive turnovers, and leaving them without a consistent driving force.

The model also leaves the thousands of individuals who support those leaders in the shadows. No successful and truly influential organization is the work of one person. Where are the prizes for the army of individuals who support founders?

We must do more to recognize and support this legion of compatriots by cultivating collaborative models for leadership.

Collaborative leadership can take several forms:

1. Build A Network:

Network leadership relies on many stakeholders to direct the organization. Spark, a nonprofit organization I co-founded in 2004, is an example. It's now the largest group of millennial philanthropists in the world. When we started Spark, we did not set out to establish a network, it happened by necessity. Because we did not have any staff, we heavily relied on our members to help plan events, research potential grantees and reach out in the community to recruit new members. Today, Spark consists of a network of 10,000 members who participate in every aspect of direction-setting for the organization -- from deciding grant priorities, to hosting fundraising events, to leading strategic planning.

2. Create More Senior Leadership Positions:

A 2006 national study of nonprofit executive leadership showed that the more staff support an executive director has, the more likely that person is to stay in her role. In this spirit, founders should delegate more responsibility to well selected and well-groomed deputies. For example, Reading Partners started as a small Bay Area nonprofit, providing volunteer tutors to at-risk students. The organization was able to scale quickly into ten school districts across the country by training leaders in each of the cities to replicate the model. As a result, Reading Partners has helped thousands of students all across the country to become better readers.

3. Cultivate a Deep Bench through Board Development:

Too often boards are thought of only as mechanisms for fundraising -- meant to impress with a lineup of established names who also have the connections to help bring in support. Founders should learn to utilize board members for much more, such as to provide significant strategic input, support on personnel issues and organizational governance frameworks. The Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation provides leadership training for the CEOs of the organizations they support. But they do not stop there. Instead, they actually offer one of their senior staff as a three-year board member of their entrepreneurs' organizations, to help train their boards by example on everything, from how to administer an executive director evaluation process, to how to measure organizational results.

Without a doubt, organizations need a strong leader at the core and a charismatic voice for promoting the cause, and founders are often ideally suited to play these roles. But to do so effectively, and for the long term, they need these models for collaboration. All supporters of social entrepreneurship should be promoting them. We can only achieve the sweeping social change we aspire to by harnessing the leadership potential of all individuals involved in the cause.