Every holiday I write a column about
charitable organizations with the vision and capabilities to
solve social and economic problems on a global basis. Last year
I wrote about Lifewater
International. This year I am pleased to write about Ashoka.
The events of 9-11 focused charitable
giving on the victims and heroes in the wake of those attacks,
and that’s the way it should have been. I considered an
organization like the September 11th Fund as being a
good subject for this column, but everyone is aware of that
charity’s efforts, while only a few may know about Ashoka. It
is important to acknowledge groups like Ashoka that dedicate
themselves to solving problems on a permanent basis, with little
Bill Drayton founded Ashoka in 1980. Its
name derives from the emperor who united the Indian subcontinent
in the 3rd century B.C. After experiencing deep
regret for his use of violence, Ashoka established a more
benevolent society on the basis of tolerance and development.
The name Ashoka also means "the
active absence of sorrow" in Sanskrit. Indeed, any
institution in society can improve only insomuch as the
individuals within the society approach the future with
determination and optimism.
sponsors “social entrepreneurs”, who are individuals with an
idea of remedying a specific problem, and have the wherewithal
to implement solutions. Ashoka provides a stipend to these
entrepreneurs, along with expertise and technical assistance so
that the ideas of these reform-minded individuals can be put in
to practice. Projects for social entrepreneurs encompass health,
education, economic development, human rights issues,
environment and civic participation.
strength of this program is its ability to reproduce its
original investment many times over, as successful projects are
replicated in different places. Ashoka also places a high
premium on the value and dignity of individuals to change their
social circumstances. “Social entrepreneurs,'' as Drayton
pointed out in a discussion with Arianna Huffington about the
possibilities of social reform on the micro-level, http://www.ariannaonline.com/columns/files/100200.html
“see where society is stuck and provide ways to get it
unstuck. They are like white blood cells that go around
attacking social ills. The more complicated society becomes, the
more you need white blood cells flooding through….We are
looking for the Andrew Carnegies and the Steve Jobses of the
social arena who can bring some of the dramatic productivity
rates we've seen in business to the solution of social
I do not know Drayton’s or Ashoka’s political ideologies, but
in the end it does not really matter, because he has created an
organization that can be applauded by the left and the right.
The political left in almost every country around the world for
government to play an increasingly larger role in society.
Although governments are ill equipped to solve many social
problems, their intervention is a consequence of the fact that
these social problems as real. A social entrepreneur who seeks
“social justice”, and by so doing empower individuals and
limit the power of governments to deprive their citizens of
basic freedoms. The values of improving the community and
empowering individuals are accomplished with Ashoka’s programs
Unfortunately, many governments in developing societies have little
interest in promoting policies that decrease their grip on
power. The policies that foster prosperity in free markets
cannot work and be put into effect in states where wealth is
obtained primarily through the government. Moreover, many social
reformers make governments look bad, and so the existence of
social reformers is highly discouraged within a society. Simply
put, the people in power have little interest in solving the
problems that fester in their society. Ashoka’s independence
allows it to jump over the governments where they operate, and
seek reform at the grassroots level.
has invested in more than 1,100 social entrepreneurs in 41
countries over the last two decades. The vast majority of
projects by Ashoka fellows continue to run even when the stipend
period ends, are replicated by other groups in the country, and
even lead to a change in national policies. In this sense,
Ashoka waters the seeds of social groups that now have a chance
to blossom into permanent institutions that fulfill basic social
himself sees social entrepreneurship growing with breakneck
speed in the decades to come. “Past
experience and a faster rate of change mean that in 20 years the
citizen sector will be almost unrecognizably more mature,"
Mr. Drayton said. "Many of the institutions that took
business 300 years to develop will be well on their way to
development," he predicted.
Successful groups that focus on global development issues do two
things: they make
sure that their efforts lead to accomplishments, and then ensure
these accomplishments can be sustained and then maintained on
their own momentum. This mixture of compassion and a
results-oriented mindset makes it possible that small
investments will reap large dividends. These social dividends
are readily available because the world is poised to alleviate
its worst social problems in the coming decades. Ashoka will
help make this happen.
My thanks to Kelli Moore at Ashoka for her information and support.
More information about donations to the Ashoka Foundation can be
found at http://www.ashoka.org/involved/invest.cfm.
by David McCullough
by Michael P. Gerace
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