A is for Ashoka’s Remarkable Work Supporting Social Entrepreneurs

Ashoka is a pioneering organisation that supports social entrepreneurs across the world. These entrepreneurs aim to improve the quality of peoples’ lives.

They may focus on education, medical care, agriculture, housing, broadcasting or any field of human need. Such people have the passion and practical skills to translate their vision into reality.

Philosophy and Background

Bill Drayton, the organisation’s founder, says:

“What differentiates Ashoka Fellows from mere idealists is that, for these rare men and women, an idea can bring satisfaction only when it is realised.

“Possessing the same unstoppable drive of a Steve Jobs, they define new issues and create new approaches. Their innovations then set new yardsticks of performance for helping society.”

Ashoka’s Fellows have the ability to make ideas stick. Based on research, the organisation’s web site explains:

“By the end of their 5-year fellowship, between fifty and sixty per cent of the Fellows have changed national policy in the countries where they have been working, and ninety percent have seen independent institutions copy their innovations.”

Ashoka enables people to harness their inner strength and improve their local society. You can find out more about their work at:


Bill explains some of the qualities that Ashoka look for in their Fellows.

Why the name Ashoka?

Bill Drayton started the organisation in 1980. He chose the name in recognition of Ashoka, a great leader who transformed the Indian sub-continent in the 3rd Century BC. (Sometimes his name is also spelt ‘Asoka’.)

Emperor Ashoka initially threw himself into waging war against his neighbours, but he became horrified by the carnage. Converting to Buddhism, he dedicated himself to improving the quality of people’s lives.

Deeply committed to his own beliefs, Ashoka nevertheless spread religious tolerance. Historians are split over the value of his legacy, but all agree that his reign produced great prosperity.

H.G. Wells wrote in his book Short History of the World:

“Amidst the tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history the name of Ashoka shines, and shines almost alone, a star.

“His reign for eight-and-twenty years was one of the brightest interludes in the troubled history of mankind.

“He organised a great digging of wells in India and the planting of trees for shade. He founded hospitals and public gardens and gardens for the growing of medicinal herbs.

“He created a ministry for the care of the aborigines and subject races of India. He made provision for the education of women.

“Such was Ashoka, the greatest of kings. He was far in advance of his age.”


Bill Dayton and Social Entrepreneurship

Bill Dayton was born in New York City in 1943. He came from a family of practical idealists who, amongst other causes, fought for the abolition of slavery and for women’s rights. Speaking to Good Magazine, Bill explained:

“Both my parents showed extraordinary (most would say madly unrealistic!) freedom of spirit at 19. Public service and respect for ideas is a recurrent theme in both the American and Australian sides of my family.

“The fact that the Grimke sisters (anti-slavery and women’s equality) and Wendell Phillips (abolitionist) lie on different branches of the America family suggest another element of deep-seated cultural values that drew these people to one another and, without a word being said, was another wonderful gift from my family.”

Looking back at his life, Bill recalls his own first encounters with entrepreneurship. Starting a one-page newspaper when at primary school, he soon built it into a 64 page publication supported by adverts. He said.

“I can’t tell you how excited I was to get this mimeograph machine. It’s amazing how supportive my parents were.

“There were 64 piles of mimeographed paper that had to be collated and stapled, and it never occurred to me this might be inconvenient to my family.”

Moving through schools, he became increasingly conscious of ‘social entrepreneurs’. These included people such as:

Susan Anthony – who fought for Women’s Rights.

Maria Montessori – who created a new approach to helping children to learn.

Mahatma Gandhi – whose spiritual leadership helped to guide India to independence.

Florence Nightingale – whose work in the Crimean War helped to found modern nursing.

Bill went on to study at Harvard, Oxford and Yale Law School. It was during a summer break at Harvard that he became gripped by the power of social change.

Vinoba Bhave, a disciple of Gandhi, was walking across India, persuading individuals and whole villages to legally ‘gift’ their land to him. He then redistributed the land more equitably to support untouchables and other landless people.

Bill was 20 years old at the time and on vacation in Munich. Hearing about Bhave’s work, however, he drove a Volkswagen van from Munich to India to join him. Speaking to US News and World Report, Bill explained:

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“Long before sunrise, we’d start walking across dividing paths of rice fields, by the moonlight, stars, and a couple of kerosene lanterns,” says Drayton.

“At sunrise, thousands of surrounding villagers dressed in their best clothes began appearing in the horizon.

“By teatime, local landowners had voluntarily ceded their holdings to Bhave. Ultimately, 7 million acres were peacefully redistributed, based on the ability of one leader to turn a powerful idea into reality.”

Bill went on to organise Civil Rights sit-ins – an event he later described as one of the more formative experiences of his life.

Pursuing his professional career, he worked at McKinsey, the consulting firm, and as an administrator at the White House during the Carter years. One of his key legacies was the carbon emission trading scheme.

Whilst having a strong academic background himself, Bill believes it is now vital to help young people to develop other skills. These include empathy, problem solving and teamwork. Here he describes some of these qualities.

Building Ashoka

Inspired by social entrepreneurs from the past, Bill decided to found Ashoka. It started with an annual budget of $50,000. This was seeded by the MacArthur Fellowship he was awarded.

The budget has now grown to more than $30 million. The first Fellow was elected in India in 1981. Today it supports over 2000 Fellows in more than 60 countries across the world.

It is funded by individuals, foundations and business entrepreneurs. It does not accept funding from government institutions.

Ashoka explains its philosophy as founded on the premise that:

“… the most effective way to promote positive social change is to invest in social entrepreneurs with innovative solutions that are sustainable and replicable, both nationally and globally.”

Bill disagrees strongly with the notion that ‘today there is less leadership in the world.’ He believes people are retaking charge of their lives – particularly in the citizen sector. Why? Older institutions no longer serve the emerging needs.

Learning from business entrepreneurs who have dominated the past 30 years, many caring people are becoming what Bill calls changemakers. Speaking to US News and World Report, he explained:

“(The social sector) has been generating jobs at 2.5 to three times as fast as the rest of society. The U.S. more than doubled the number of IRS-recognized charities in a decade.

“Brazil grew from somewhere between 500 and 3,600 citizen groups in 1980 to an estimated more than 1 million by the year 2000. There are similar statistics from every continent.”

Talent is flocking to the sector, says Bill, because people believe it is where they can make a positive difference. Certainly there is a place for pressuring old institutions to change, but it can be quicker to build successful prototypes.

People are then more able to spot a need, make the new rules and deliver positive results. Let’s explore how Ashoka then aims to make these changes sustainable.


Ashoka says: “We have designed an approach that offers critical interventions on three levels – the individual, the group, and the sector.” Let’s consider these three themes.

Ashoka supports social entrepreneurs

“Social entrepreneurs are the engines of social change and role models for the citizen sector,” says Ashoka.

It provides such people with a living stipend, often for 3 years. This allows them to work full-time on implementing their idea. Additionally it provides them with ‘entrepreneur-to-entrepreneur’ support and access to expert advice.

The Fellow also becomes part of the organisation’s wider community for life. Ashoka spends a considerable amount of time selecting its Fellows. It looks for five qualities in such people.


1) They must have a new idea – this is The Knockout Test.

The person must be possessed by a new idea. It must be a new approach to a social problem that will make a breakthrough in a particular field.

Joaquín Felipe Leguía Orezzoli, for example, is creating ‘Children’s Forests’ in Peru. The grandson of a former President of Peru, he involves children in managing the community forests. The Ashoka site says:

“As a child, Joaquín’s garden was a refuge from the world and a space to explore his imagination.

“After his mother married a Swedish businessman who worked in the Amazon, Joaquín spent his summer vacations in the jungle, which further inspired his creativity.

“There, he also became friends with a young Shipibo indigenous boy who shared adventures with him and inspired his early interest in the role of children in the environment.

“After a failed attempt to please his parents by studying business, the political situation in Peru led Joaquín to finish his studies in the United States, where he earned his bachelor’s degree from Cornell University in natural sciences.”

“After returning to Peru and working in a variety of public, private, and nonprofit jobs, Joaquín attended Yale University and earned his master’s degree in environmental management.

“He traveled to Bolivia to study the role of indigenous children in community development for his thesis project, an experience that affirmed his conviction to work in youth environmental conservation.

“Returning to Peru in 1995 he and a friend founded the Association for Children and the Conservation of Their Environment.”

Joaquín’s idea passed The Knockout Test. The organisation he leads aims to increase children’s appreciation of nature and equip them with practical skills to sustain their environment in the future. Many of these areas go on to be actually managed by the young people.

2) They must have creativity.

Creativity is crucial. Ashoka asks questions such as:

“Does this candidate have a vision to meet some human need better than it has been met before? Do they have a history of creating other new visions?”

Creativity obviously comes in different forms. Ashoka is looking for people who can beyond their original idea and find creative solutions on the road to success.

3) They must have entrepreneurial quality.

Great entrepreneurs get the right balance between Innovation, Implementation and Impact. They start by having an innovative idea, but this is only the start.

They want to implement the idea and make a positive impact. Ashoka’s entrepreneurs are possessed by their vision and want to translate it into reality. They are dreamers who do and deliver.

4) They must have an idea that has social impact.

Ashoka focuses on the candidate’s idea – not just the candidate. The idea must be able to live beyond the person’s involvement.

Marie Haisova, for example, has involved women in reducing pollution in major Czech cities. The Ashoka site says:

“Marie’s program encourages mothers to spearhead the development of a beautiful and healthy urban environment of new parks and green spaces.

“Her program provides training and leadership-building seminars for women so they can effectively launch their own neighborhood campaigns.

“By providing women with the opportunity to change the area in which they live, Marie is both improving the poor condition of city environments and empowering women to become active community leaders.”

5) They must have ethical fiber.

Social entrepreneurs must have an internal moral compass. This is called into action on many occasions.

First, when they face setbacks. Can they revisit their inner values and make decisions based on this compass?

Second, when they invite other people to adopt a fresh approach towards tackling a problem. Ashoka says that people will ask: “Do we trust this person absolutely?”

Third, when they experience pressure or personal attacks. The candidate must then be seen to behave ethically in every way.

Ashoka uses these five tests to judge whether a potential Fellow has the ability to be a successful social entrepreneur.


Ashoka promotes group social entrepreneurship

Ashoka believes it is vital to link individuals, groups and networks of social entrepreneurs. They are then able:

To encourage each other.

To learn from each other.

To link together to create effective action.

Ashoka builds infrastructures to support
the social
entrepreneurs in the citizen sector

Bill Drayton believes this is a vital step in sustaining change. Why? The old institutions support the old ideas, but there is little support for the new ideas.

The complete Ashoka model is therefore: a) To support social entrepreneurs; b) To promote group entrepreneurship; c) To build the infrastructures that support the citizen sector.

Ashoka tackles the infrastructure issue on several fronts. This includes providing seed financing and building bridges to the business and academic sectors.

The organisation has also developed mutually rewarding relationships with companies such as McKinsey, Hill & Knowlton and Ernst & Young.

Perhaps the greatest institutional challenge is developing funding models for the citizen sector. Ashoka addresses this by devoting resources to what it calls Social Financial Services. The key strategies it pursues include:

Engaging major financial institutions, including private, investment, and commercial banks, to provide alternative sources of capital.

Creating financial models such as SIV (Social Investing Ventures) to allow the movement of these cutting edge ideas to scale.

Assisting other philanthropic groups and Ashoka Fellows to secure investment through non-traditional avenues.

Ashoka has a clear philosophy and principles, so let’s explore how these work out in practice.


“Ashoka envisions a world where Everyone is a Changemaker: a world that responds quickly and effectively to social challenges, and where each individual has the freedom, confidence and societal support to address any social problem and drive change.”

This is the organisation’s vision – so what is the reality? Between 50% and 60% of the Fellows change national policy in their respective countries.

Ninety percent see independent institutions copy their ideas. This is a remarkable bottom-line in any language.

David Bornstein features some of these changemakers in his book How To Change The World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas.

Whilst not solely about Ashoka, the book highlights the work of many of its Fellows. He also cites Ashoka as the organisation that has pioneered the way in social entrepreneurship.

How to change the world

Bill Drayton is optimistic about the future. Outlining his view of the part Ashoka can play in history, he told the US News and World Report.

“I have never doubted that we are serving the most powerful and most hopeful historical force of our era. Or that we are positioned to play a truly important role. We are, after all, a community of most of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs.

“How could any entrepreneur, confronted by such amazing opportunities to help transform the world and to do so with such extraordinary colleagues, be tempted to lose focus?”

“In the world ten years from now, it will not be possible to be a citizen without being a change-maker. Anyone who is not will feel themselves to be enormously vulnerable.

“More important, they will not be able to participate in the giving and receiving of love and respect, the heart of human existence, at its most important level – causing change for the good.”

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