Changing the World on a Shoestring

An ambitious foundation promotes social change by finding "social entrepeneurs" -- people who have new ideas and the knack for implementing them

AN organization called Ashoka: Innovators for the Public, which supports "social entrepreneurs" worldwide, was founded in 1980 by Bill Drayton, an inordinately thin man with a remarkable intellect and tenacity, who has spent the past twenty years on a search across the globe for people capable of bringing about social change in areas of critical human need. Drayton and his staff of forty-five have carried Ashoka, which has headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, to thirty-three countries accounting for three quarters of the population of Central Europe, Latin America, Africa, and South and Southeast Asia, and have assembled a network of thousands of nominators, electors, members, fellows, and supporters, who search regularly in their countries for people with fresh ideas and the ability -- the vision, drive, savvy, and practical creativity -- to make them work on a large scale.
Ashoka defines "large scale" precisely. The organization looks for people who will become references in their field, who will set or change patterns at the national level or, in the case of a small country, at a larger regional level. Ashoka searches for people who, in Drayton's words, will leave their "scratch on history." When the foundation finds a bona fide social entrepreneur, it elects him or her to a fellowship, provides financial and professional support to help launch the fellow's idea, and connects the fellow with other social entrepreneurs working on similar problems. Like a venture-capital group, Ashoka seeks high yields from modest, well-targeted investments. It seeks returns not in profits but in advances in education, environmental protection, rural development, poverty alleviation, human rights, health care, care for the disabled, care for children at risk, and other fields. Over the past seventeen years Ashoka has screened thousands of candidates and elected about 800 fellows.

At an age when most boys are excited by fast cars, Bill Drayton was excited by organizations. As a high school student at Phillips Academy, Drayton established the Asia Society, which soon became the school's most popular student organization. As an undergraduate at Harvard, he created the Ashoka Table, bringing in prominent government, union, and church leaders for off-the-record dinners at which students could ask "how things really worked." (Ashoka was an Emperor of India in the third century B.C. Stricken with remorse after a conquest, he renounced violence and dedicated the remainder of his life to the public good.) At Yale Law School, Drayton founded Yale Legislative Services, which at its peak involved a third of the law school's student body. He spent ten years at the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, helping to retool public and private institutions. He led the fight to limit the damage to the Environmental Protection Agency after the election of Ronald Reagan as President. Drayton has been the chairman, the president, a trustee, or a member of twenty-one associations.

Drayton looks like the mildest-mannered of intellectuals. He wears thick glasses and old blue suits, and skinny ties with skinny stripes. His shirt pocket is usually stuffed with four or five pens, dozens of notes, and a comb (which he employs, not very successfully, to restrain the lank strands of hair that persist in flopping over his glasses). He speaks at a barely audible level, having grown up in a family in which raising one's voice was considered uncivilized.

All this is very misleading. Ted Marmor, a professor of public policy at the Yale School of Management, and a friend of Drayton's, told me
Leafrecently how a colleague had described Drayton years before Marmor met him: "'You've never seen anything like this fellow. It looks like a heavy wind would get rid of him -- but he's got the determination of Job and the brains of a Nobel laureate.'" Marmor added his own assessment: "This wispy, carefully controlled, blue-suited fellow has got enormous power. And connected to it is a shrewdness about the way institutions operate and the world really works."

During the Carter Administration, Drayton served as an assistant administrator of the EPA, where he designed and pushed through an array of market-based approaches to environmental regulation -- including tradeable "pollution rights," today a centerpiece of the Clinton Administration's plan to curtail greenhouse-gas emissions. "Concepts that Bill was advocating twenty years ago, that were considered radical cave-ins by the environmental movement, are today advocated by nearly everybody as better ways to control pollution," explains Jodie Bernstein, the director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection, who worked with Drayton at the EPA. "Bill was a very, very significant force in changing the way the government went about carrying out the environmental mission."

THE idea of creating a fellowship of public innovators had been in the back of Drayton's mind since his days at Harvard. As he conceived of it, Ashoka would be the most "highly leveraged" approach to change possible, intervening at the "most critical moment in the life cycle" of the "most critical ingredient in the development process."

In the late 1970s, while he was at the EPA, Drayton and some of his friends began traveling during their Christmas vacations, hunting for nominators and candidates, initially in India, Indonesia, and Venezuela. (To test the idea, Drayton focused on three different-sized countries with dissimilar cultures.) Over a two-week period they would meet sixty or seventy people. "We'd go and see someone for breakfast, two people during the morning, someone for a late lunch, someone for afternoon tea, and then dinner," he recalls. "We were systematic about it. We would go and see anyone who had a reputation for doing something innovative for the public good. And we kept asking questions: 'Who in your field, as a private citizen, has caused a major change that you really respond to? How does it work? Is it new? Where do we find this person?' Then we'd go and see that person and ask the same questions and get more names. We'd turn each name into a three-by-five card, and as the weeks went by, we'd begin to get multiple cards on people. At the end we had mapped out who was doing what in the different fields. We came away thinking, 'Boy, these people are something,' and seeing that it was really the right time to do this."

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