At Mountaintop, we know that we don't and never will have all the answers, and we will continue to make mistakes. In order for us to be an organization meaningfully contributing to a better world, we believe it is important for us to be: 1) humble enough to recognize when we are wrong; 2) honest enough to be publicly transparent when we mess up; 3) adaptive enough to learn from our mistakes and improve; and 4) accountable enough to ensure we work to fully implement our learnings. In this spirit, below we have publicly listed our organization's mistakes and learnings.
Comparing Mountaintop in a Competitive Manner to Peer Organizations
What Happened: From fall 2022 through summer 2023, Mountaintop had a graphic on its website and certain other materials called "Peer Models" that listed other fellowship programs and described how Mountaintop was distinct. This graphic had been created to show how Mountaintop was filling gaps in the leadership space and was recommended by several advisors. However, a partner from one of these fellowship organizations reached out to share that some of the information was inaccurate, and that in general the graphic seemed to imply a competitive tone in a space that requires collaboration to solve complex problems.
How Mountaintop Responded: Mountaintop immediately apologized for the unintended errors and competitive tone, and took down the graphic on the website and all materials.
Mountaintop's Learning and Commitment: Since the graphic was initially created, Mountaintop's thinking of how systems change happens has evolved. There is no way that complex issues can be solved by a single organization working competitively, and our world needs fewer "lone wolves" and more collaborative individuals and organizations who build up and support mission-aligned friends and partners, even if their exact approach is slightly different. Going forward, Mountaintop commits to: 1) Never compare ourselves to other organizations in a competitive manner; 2) Adjust our theory of change to prioritize partnership and ecosystem building with complementary organizations.
Setting a Fellowship Age Limit
What Happened: From fall 2022 through summer 2023, Mountaintop listed on its materials that Fellows must be 30 years of age or younger to participate in the fellowship. This was intended to ensure that the program model could specifically target youth leaders, provide universally relevant training curriculum, and give a standard experience to hosts. However, several otherwise qualified candidates older than 30 provided feedback that the Mountaintop fellowship could be beneficial for outstanding leaders ages 30-40 or older who are still in the early stages of their careers, and by categorically excluding older candidates Mountaintop would be unnecessarily limiting the program's potential to scale and deepen its impact in many places.
How Mountaintop Responded: Mountaintop decided that the age limit, while well-intended, was unnecessarily exclusionary and would reject many outstanding emerging leaders. Mountaintop removed the age limit and instead lists in its selection criteria that the fellowship seeks candidates "at the early stage of their professional careers, can demonstrate that the Mountaintop Fellowship can meaningfully accelerate their trajectory as a transformational leader, and help them stay in or return to their home community or country."
Mountaintop's Learning and Commitment: Going forward, Mountaintop commits to ensuring that its selection criteria remains as inclusive as possible, opening up the possibility of non-traditional candidates to demonstrate their qualifications through the selection process. Further, Mountaintop commits to expanding its outreach strategies to older demographics of emerging leaders and social entrepreneurs. Finally, Mountaintop commits to constantly seeking input and advice from candidates, Fellows, hosts, and others who directly are experiencing the fellowship to continue to improve the program design.
Proposing a Flawed Financial Model
What Happened: During fall 2022, the proposed program design for Mountaintop included providing Fellows with pay in line with United Nations pay scales for each country, and raising most of the fellowship costs philanthropically. This financial model assumed: 1) NGO and social ventures would be unwilling or unable to contribute meaningfully to the financial model, making it more important to focus on philanthropic fundraising; 2) Paying in line with the United Nations pay scales would be necessary to attract outstanding candidates.
In fact, through dozens of conversations with peer organizations, emerging leaders around the world, and potential host organizations, it became clear that neither of these assumptions were correct. Many host organizations, even small to midsized NGOs in lower-income countries in sub-Saharan Africa, were willing to pay a fee equal to what they would already be paying early career employees to host a full-time Mountaintop Fellow because of Mountaintop's ability to recruit top locally-rooted talent and to provide hosts with professional development. And many outstanding young people shared that the Mountaintop Fellowship's benefits extended much beyond the stipend to include the value of a high impact structured opportunity to serve their home community, training at Harvard, mentorship, peer relationships, and ongoing alumni support.
Further, outstanding young people generally thought the United Nations pay scales actually provided several multiples more compensation than the cost of living in their community, and while of course they would be happy to make more money, many did not think this was even close to necessary and given limited resources, that money could be spent on additional fellowship benefits. Finally, many entrepreneurs from peer nonprofits advised time and again to make the financial model as sustainable as possible, and that ensuring a large portion of the budget comes from earned revenue was the best way to do this.
How Mountaintop Responded: Mountaintop changed its financial model to require that hosts pay a fee to host a Fellow equal to whatever they pay equally qualified employees at their host site. By setting the price at this rate, hosts are not overburdened to pay more than what they already pay for employees, there are no pay discrepancies between Fellows and host staff that might otherwise create cultural problems, and the host is in a much better position to hire the Fellow full time after the fellowship if they are already getting paid in line with their pay scale, strengthening sustainability. While improving the programmatic experience, this financial model also has the dual benefit of being much more financially sustainable, dramatically reducing the need for philanthropy each year. With the new model, philanthropy is solely required for covering the cost of the fellowship training and enrichment, recruitment/selection, and operations, and none is needed to pay the Fellow stipends.
Mountaintop's Learning and Commitment: Mountaintop has learned that no matter how intuitive, all programmatic assumptions must be tested through direct feedback from the people who are most proximate to the work. Mountaintop commits to continuing to have its financial model driven by the twin principles of proximity and sustainability.