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 fanfare.
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
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 problems.”
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 simultaneously.
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 needs.
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
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.
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