#FridayPhilosophy: Ashoka's Founding Story



Bill Drayton founded Ashoka in 1980, around the idea that the most powerful force for good in the world is the individual social entrepreneur: a person driven by an innovative idea that can help correct an entrenched global problem. At Ashoka, we call these sorts of ideas system-changing, because they permanently alter existing patterns of activity, as opposed to simply adding in minor fixes here or there.

Bill Drayton is the founder and CEO of Ashoka

Bill Drayton is the founder and CEO of Ashoka

Once we realized that social entrepreneurs were the key to making the world a better place, we decided that the most important thing we could do was identify the best of them and help them excel. Our efforts towards this goal--finding and supporting social entrepreneurs--characterized the first stage of our development, sometimes referred to as Ashoka 1.0.

From the beginning, Ashoka has identified and supported these outstanding individuals with ideas for far-reaching social change by electing them to the Ashoka Fellowship. As defined by Ashoka, the social entrepreneur has the same makeup as a business entrepreneur—in attitude, vision, bias for action, and skills—but the social entrepreneur seeks to better the world in a specific way. “Social entrepreneurs, for some reason deep in their personality, know from the time they are little that they are in this world to change it in a fundamental way,” Drayton explained.

Bill Drayton and Ashoka’s Earliest Years

While Bill was an undergraduate at Harvard, he started the Ashoka Table, a discussion group which invited prominent public leaders for off-the-record dinner conversations with inquisitive young students. At Yale law school, he founded Yale Legislative Services, an analytic and drafting service conducted by law students and provided to legislators who lacked their own staff support. As assistant administrator for planning and management at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during the Carter Administration, Drayton designed and pushed through an array of market-based approaches to environmental regulation, including the now widely disseminated idea of tradable pollution permits to control greenhouse gas emissions.

The idea of creating a global fellowship of social entrepreneurs had been in Drayton’s mind since his college years. While at the EPA and later as a consultant at McKinsey & Company, he began to search actively for nominators and Fellows candidates. Nominators were those who had the knowledge and contacts that could be used to identify the extraordinary individuals whose social ideas Ashoka wanted to encourage and support. The candidates who were ultimately selected as Ashoka Fellows would become part of a global fellowship of their own, a community of social entrepreneurs from all parts of the world.

Before launching this venture, in 1978, Drayton and several supporters visited India, Indonesia, and Venezuela to assess the climate for their enterprise. They interviewed 364 people in a wide range of social fields such as the environment, education, and children’s advocacy. They wanted to ensure that they could develop an independent, systematic approach for identifying high potential candidates, and that they might avoid suspicion that their program was a front for other, clandestine “political” activities. On June 3rd, 1980, the fellowship organization was incorporated in Washington, DC under the name "Society for the International Public Interest." The board of directors of the SIPI consisted of 3 people: Bill Drayton, Julien Phillips, and Bill Carter. 

The organization's first stated mission was to "encourage and assist development of public interest work in developing countries," including:

  1. Assist in the design, testing and development of public interest programs in developing countries.
  2. Disseminate ideas and provide information and advice to public interest groups.
  3. Assist in funding start-up costs of public interest programs in developing countries.
  4. Build bridges between public interest groups in different countries and the international community.

The following year, the organization elected its first Fellow. Four years later Bill Drayton was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship (“genius” award), and began to work full-time on building the organization. 

Ashoka: The First Twenty Years

Drayton, then in his mid-thirties, was looking for people with compelling visions who possessed the creativity, savvy, and determination to realize their ideas on a large scale: people who could, in his words, leave their ‘scratch on history.’ As he conceived of it, building an organization that could find these wildflowers and help them grow would be the most highly leveraged approach to social change possible. It would be the single most powerful thing he could do to speed up development and democratization around the globe. 

Drayton believed that the kind of social entrepreneurs he was seeking – passionate, resourceful, system-changing, history-making innovators who could “unbalance” static social, political and economic equations – were extremely rare; perhaps 1 in 10 million.  

The process of becoming a Fellow, therefore, was extremely selective, and began by extensive sourcing from nominators worldwide, particularly in developing countries where problems of poverty and deprivation were often acute.  The organization embraced both ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ roles in social change: supporting the work of individual entrepreneurs and, in doing so, building the broader field of social entrepreneurship.  Accordingly, its mission was to “develop the profession of social entrepreneurship around the world by supporting talented visionaries who chose to devote their lives to solving social problems.”

As the organization developed, it became ever more clear that the organization was not about "public interest work," but about social innovation, and the entrepreneurs that drive it. Accordingly, on June 10, 1987, the Society for the International Public Interest changed its name to Ashoka.

The purpose of the newly renamed organization was also changed, to:

  1. Encourage and assist individuals in making important innovations for the public good in the fields of economic advancement, protection of minorities, assistance to the poor, legal and civil rights, education, protection of the environment, health, and other public service work.
  2. Build an active mutual help fellowship among such public service entrepreneurs, both established and beginning, across all barriers.
  3. Educate national publics about other areas of the world, especially through person-to-person contact. 

And to match this new purpose, Ashoka's activities were listed as:

  1. Help beginning public service entrepreneurs succeed in launching both their innovative ideas and their own longer-term careers.
  2. Provide start-up financial support to these public service entrepreneurs and to offer the assistance of established public service entrepreneurs working in the same or related fields.
  3. Link public service entrepreneurs who are working in different regions of the same country or in different countries altogether, so that they may benefit from each other’s experience.
  4. Support independent public service work generally and to encourage individuals to commit themselves to this work.
  5. Educate the publics of the countries having Affiliated Organizations about each other’s societies by creating direct links between the Affiliated Organizations, the public service entrepreneurs in these countries, and with others associated with the International Society and its Affiliated Organizations. 

Ashoka 2.0: Re-visioning Our Mission

In How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas David Bornstein chronicled much of the good work – and the lessons learned – from Ashoka and its Fellows.  In his discussion of the Fellow selection process, Bornstein examined just what Ashoka evaluators mean by the “knock out test:” what defines a powerfully new and transformative idea.  “Such an idea,” he wrote, “does not arrive in a flash of inspiration.  It takes shape over years in an iterative process of adjustments and readjustments, with new pieces continually being added and others continually being dropped." According to Drayton, “Every day you’re modifying the idea. You’re seeing new opportunities. You’re seeing the nuances of problems. It’s a continuous process." This same process of idea modification and adjustment applied to Ashoka itself, as the organization continually examined ways in which it could advance important social change in systemic and lasting ways. 

By the late 1990s, it was clear that Ashoka had largely achieved one of its primary goals of establishing the field of social entrepreneurship. A number of Ashoka like organizations – Echoing Green, the Skoll and Schwab Foundations, New Profit Inc, Endeavor, the Acumen Fund, and many others – had formed to support the work of promising social entrepreneurs at various stages of their individual and organizational development. Social enterprise programs were now a staple of business and public policy schools in the US and other countries, and a burgeoning cottage industry of researchers and professional service firms – lawyers, consultancies, academics, trade associations – had evolved to study and advance the work of social entrepreneurs.

The fact that Ashoka had helped launch the careers of nearly 3,000 social entrepreneurs and had been, in the words of its President Diana Wells, a critical “engine of the sector” at large begged important “adjustment and readjustment” questions: Was it possible that the potential for advancing social change resided not just in the work of an elite one in 10 million, but perhaps in the efforts of every individual?  Was it possible to imagine a world in which Everyone was a Changemaker?

Ashoka 3.0: Fulfilling the EACH Vision

While in some ways a eureka moment, the Everyone a Changemaker (known at Ashoka as ‘EACH’) vision was as much evolutionary as revolutionary. Drayton and his staff believed that the core work of identifying, electing and supporting extraordinary social entrepreneurs would remain central to Ashoka’s mission. The key was to draw on the inspiration, depth of knowledge and expertise, accumulated experience and collective insights of the Fellows’ work to enable a broader flowering of social change efforts. “We are no longer talking about one in ten million,” explained Stuart Yasgur, one of the organization’s managing directors. “Ashoka aims to engage 80% of the world’s social entrepreneurs.” In order to facilitate an ‘Everyone a Changemaker’ world, Ashoka would need to design new programs and processes to:

  • Continue to support the work of individual social entrepreneurs, who inspire thousands of others to be changemakers
  • Help entrepreneurs work with each other, and with partners in business, government, academia and other influential institutions to draw on and demonstrate the power of collective entrepreneurship
  • Build the right architecture for the sector and for the organization

Want to find out more about our organisation? Visit the global website: www.ashoka.org