Social Entrepreneurs and Ashoka
By Scott Gillette

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.

Ashoka 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.

The 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, “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.   

Ashoka 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.

Drayton 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

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