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


recently 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."

Almost all of Ashoka's work was done by volunteers. Nominators and electors donated their time (they still do). Funding came from friends, private foundations, and Drayton's pocket. By 1981 Drayton had collected hundreds of three-by-five cards, and Ashoka was ready to hold its first selection panel. One of the first fellows elected was Gloria de Souza, a teacher in Bombay who wanted to redesign elementary school education in India. De Souza felt that the old "Here we go 'round the mulberry bush," repeat-after-me en masse, rote learning that dominated schools in India deadened the minds of students. She wanted to stimulate independent, creative thought and environmental sensitivity through inquiry and problem-solving. De Souza had demonstrated her ideas on a small scale with great success. She immersed students in their immediate surroundings: she got them thinking about the effects of seasonal cycles by studying plants around the school, about how a gourd could be turned into a musical instrument and why it made the sound it did. She took students on "History Alive" forays to monuments and museums, and explored democracy through school elections. Today such teaching methods are common in schools throughout the industrialized world. However, in India in the 1970s and early 1980s De Souza's ideas were revolutionary. She was criticized for using her students as guinea pigs, but their reading and math scores soared.

In order to disseminate her approach, De Souza had to leave her teaching position and devote herself to the task full-time. Ashoka granted her a four-year living stipend, an investment of about $10,000. In 1985 the city of Bombay invited De Souza to introduce her Environmental Studies (EVS) approach in its school system through a pilot program. By 1988 almost a million students were being taught with her methods, and the government of India had incorporated EVS into its new national curriculum.

After the 1980 presidential election Drayton had gone back part-time to McKinsey & Company, where he had worked in the 1970s, and continued building Ashoka, taking frequent trips to Asia. For five years he was unable to persuade any major foundation to support Ashoka. Potential donors' eyes glazed over when he spoke of "investments" in social entrepreneurs or used the analogy of "social venture capital."

One afternoon in late 1984 he received a telephone call informing him that he had won a MacArthur fellowship, worth more than $200,000 over five years. Drayton left McKinsey to work full-time on Ashoka, and in half a dozen years raised millions of dollars from private donors and foundations, including the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the MacArthur Foundation. By 1990 Ashoka had opened offices in Bangladesh, Brazil, Great Britain, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nepal, Nigeria, South Africa, Thailand, the United States, and Zimbabwe. In 1994 and 1995 Ashoka opened offices throughout South America, the Caribbean Basin, and Central Europe. The organization is currently considering launching a program to elect fellows in the United States.

Ashoka is working against the backdrop of a major global development: the emergence of an international "citizens' sector." Over the past few decades, as many individuals have sought to address pervasive social problems in new ways, there has been a proliferation of not-for-profit organizations -- or what are referred to in development circles as nongovernmental organizations -- throughout the world. Peter Drucker, the renowned management expert, estimates that 800,000 nonprofits have been established over the past thirty years. Drucker sees management and innovation in this sector as one of the vital challenges of our era. He helped establish a foundation for nonprofit management in 1990. In recent years the Stanford Business School, the Harvard Business School, and the John F. Kennedy School of Government, at Harvard, have established programs in social entrepreneurship and not-for-profit management.

Drayton is optimistic about this trend. "We're in this wonderfully creative period where it is the time to build the intelligent institutions that will support a competitive social half of society. To my mind, the single major evolutionary task that our generation faces is developing the democratic revolution's institutions beyond business in the social arena. And people are getting the idea that they can have a career doing this."

WHEN Drayton calls someone a "social entrepreneur," he is describing a specific and rare personality type -- someone, in fact, like himself. He doesn't mean a businessman who gives jobs to homeless people or devotes a share of profits to, say, the environmental movement. Ashoka's social entrepreneur is a pathbreaker with a powerful new idea, who combines visionary and real-world problem-solving creativity, who has a strong ethical fiber, and who is "totally possessed" by his or her vision for change.

"Entrepreneurs, for some reason deep in their personality, know from the time they are little that they are in this world to change it in a fundamental way," Drayton says. Unlike artists or scholars, entrepreneurs are not satisfied with merely expressing an idea. Unlike managers or social workers, they are not satisfied with solving the problem of a particular group of people. To be effective, they must remain open to signals from the environment. They do not fare well in academia, because they have no interest in specializing.

And entrepreneurs are emphatically not idealists. Drayton says, "Idealists can tell you what Xanadu is going to look like -- many pleasure domes, et cetera, et cetera -- but they can't tell you how the sewage is going to work in Xanadu once you get there, and they certainly can't tell you how you're going to get there." In contrast, social entrepreneurs are obsessed with the details of implementation. Early in life they engage in self-designed apprenticeships to prepare themselves for the challenges ahead.

Social entrepreneurs share a deep belief in their ability to alter their society fundamentally. "These people feel so strongly that they can make a difference," Susan Stevenson, who heads Ashoka's venture program, explains, "that when any problem confronts them, they're immediately thinking, 'What can I do right here and now where I sit to help solve this?'"

To get a clear idea of what Ashoka


means by social entrepreneurs, we can think of a few noted figures who fit the bill. Susan B. Anthony, Margaret Sanger, Clara Barton, Horace Mann, Dorothea Dix, Jane Addams, and Ralph Nader are good examples. Florence Nightingale was one of the greatest social entrepreneurs in modern history.

Nightingale's fame grew out of her compassionate care for British soldiers in Turkey during the Crimean War. The hygienic standards she introduced reduced the death rate in British military hospitals in Scutari from 42 to two percent. After her return to England she fought for the rest of her life to professionalize the field of nursing. She established standards for sanitation; introduced such innovations in hospitals as patient call lights, dumbwaiters, and hot and cold running water on every floor; and systematized the training of nurses. (She also invented the pie chart.) She wrote 150 books and monographs and 12,000 letters. Through relentless lobbying efforts and the skillful use of influential contacts she got her ideas adopted first by the British Army and eventually by the medical establishment.

How would one systematically screen a large number of candidates to find potential Florence Nightingales? Ashoka's selection process focuses on four criteria: creativity, entrepreneurial quality, the social impact of the person's idea, and ethical fiber. Candidates must undergo several screening steps: nomination, reference checks, site visits and interviews by an Ashoka in-country representative, a second-opinion review, and a string of interviews conducted by a "selection panel," consisting of three or four social entrepreneurs from the candidate's country and an Ashoka board or senior staff member who lives on another continent. Each panelist interviews each candidate one-on-one. When they come together as a jury, the selection panelists focus on one fundamental question: Do we believe that this person with this idea will change the pattern in this field, at the national level or beyond? Decisions to elect fellows must be unanimous. Ashoka holds a selection panel at least once a year for every country in which it operates. A final hurdle -- approval by Ashoka's board -- ensures consistency for selection worldwide.

Ashoka passes over many candidates engaged in valuable work at the local level. Drayton sees Ashoka as the first professional association for social entrepreneurs, with an important role in defining a new field -- a new career path. "In these early decades of the profession it's especially important that we get it right," he says. "People understand this field by anecdote rather than theory, so a fellow we decide to elect becomes a walking anecdote of what we mean by a social entrepreneur."

CONSIDER Fabio Rosa, an agronomist and an engineer whose driving ambition is to bring electricity to tens of millions of poor people in Brazil. Rosa and I met recently in Rio de Janeiro. He is an energetic man with a sharp, direct manner and a disarming sense of humor. I liked him immediately, and he made my job easy. When I asked him a question about rural electrification, he talked with focus and enthusiasm for forty-five minutes. His grasp of detail was remarkable: he spoke knowledgeably about electrical engineering, irrigation, rice farming, land grazing, solar power, banking, politics -- all fields he needed to understand in order to work effectively. "I am the low-cost-electricity champion in Brazil," Rosa said, and he wasn't being immodest, merely straightforward. Rosa understands the scope of his vision, and he seems to have little doubt that he can carry it out. He has been at it for fifteen years -- and he feels he is off to a good start.

In the early 1980s Rosa accepted a post as secretary of agriculture in a small, isolated municipality called Palmares, in Brazil's southernmost state, Rio Grande do Sul. Palmares was a depressed area with poor infrastructure and a local population dependent on rice farming. Shortly after his arrival Rosa took a tour of the area to get to know local farmers. He quickly discovered that they had a big problem: water. Poor farmers had to buy water at exploitative prices from wealthy landowners. "Without water there was no production," Rosa said. "And without production there was no wealth. The whole political situation was determined by this fact."

He began thinking of ways to help the farmers. Watching television news one evening, he saw an interview with Ennio Amaral, a professor at a technical school who had developed an inexpensive rural-electrification system in a nearby district. Rio Grande do Sul has a high water table. With cheap electricity, Rosa thought, even poor farmers could drop wells and irrigate their land. "Then they would be free from the tyranny of water."

Three quarters of the rural population in Palmares had no access to electricity, because Brazil's electrification standards had been designed on a huge scale under a military regime to serve cities, large farms, and industry. The cost of providing electricity to a single rural property was estimated at $7,000 -- triple the annual per capita income.

Rosa paid Amaral a visit and was impressed by the simplicity of his system. To cut costs, Amaral substituted wood for cement poles, steel for copper wire, and steel-and-zinc conductors for aluminum ones. He spaced poles far apart and used small transformers.

Amaral had been developing his system for ten years but had not managed to extend it beyond a test site. "He kept running into what you might call a 'small-big' problem," Rosa said. "What he had invented worked beautifully, but it was illegal." In Brazil state electric companies determine and supervise technical standards. "If a system doesn't meet the 'norm,' the company won't turn the electricity on." At the time, the state electric company in Rio Grande do Sul saw no reason to change the norm. Rosa disagreed.

He got authorization from the governor to conduct an experiment with Amaral's system, figuring that local people could handle a good part of the construction. They could make use of existing poles and trees, and string most of the wire themselves. Rosa explained his idea to local people, who volunteered their labor to keep costs down.

He spent a year developing a project proposal and persuaded the director of the Brazilian National Social Development Bank to finance it. By working with journalists and local government officials, he was able to overcome opposition from the cement cartel and the aluminum industry.

As a selling point, Rosa had told villagers that his plan could provide a household with electricity for about the price of a cow. Two years

Thriving plant

later, in 1988, he delivered on his promise: 400 rural families were hooked up to the electricity grid at a cost of $400 to $600 per family -- less than 10 percent of the government's figure of $7,000. Three quarters of the farmers bought water pumps; 80 percent bought refrigerators or television sets. Farm incomes increased. For every three people served by electricity, Rosa reported, one family member returned from the favelas (urban slums) -- a striking development in a country that has gone in fifty years from being 70 percent rural to being more than 70 percent urban.

Rosa fought with electric-company technicians for a year until his standard was approved. By then his term of office had expired. "It became clear to me that I needed to be independent," he told me.

At this point a local nominator brought Rosa to Ashoka's attention. With Ashoka's support -- a living stipend for three years -- he continued to develop his system. After a year and a half a helicopter arrived at his house carrying a minister from the state government. The director of the national development bank had promised $2.5 million in low-cost loans to the state to spread the Palmares Project -- and he wanted Rosa to oversee it.

Over the next three years Rosa implemented Project Light, carrying electricity to 25,000 low-income people in forty-two municipalities. Working in areas of different topography, among corn, soybean, and milk farmers, Rosa demonstrated the widespread applicability of the Palmares Project. In 1991 the University of São Paulo established a national resource center for low-cost electrification based on Rosa's system. In 1996 the state of Rio Grande do Sul launched Project Light II, a $34 million plan, based on Rosa's technical standard, to carry electricity to 160,000 people. Later that year the government of São Paulo State, Brazil's most populous state, launched a $240 million rural-electrification project to provide electricity to 800,000 people, which Rosa is coordinating on a half-time basis. (He now spends half of his time developing rural solar-energy systems in other states.)

"What São Paulo does, the rest of Brazil copies," Rosa told me. "Once we consolidate the project in São Paulo, I think the rest of Brazil will just be a matter of time."

Ashoka's total investment in Rosa came to less than $25,000. When I asked him if he would have succeeded without Ashoka's support, he replied, "Yes, but it would have taken longer." He added, "Ashoka let me work the way I wanted to work. Bill made me see that I was a social entrepreneur. He showed me that my role was to take things beyond theory and find practical solutions for all the problems that emerged along the way."

AFTER seventeen years Ashoka has achieved an international network of fellows in various fields: 180 working on education and children's issues, 147 working on the environment, 104 on income generation and poverty alleviation, 101 on women's issues, and fifty-three on disability.

Some patterns have emerged. For example, in many parts of the developing world a disability -- mental illness, deafness, paraplegia -- is seen as a curse or punishment from God. The disabled person is hidden in a back room, and the family is stigmatized. To get a sense of the scope of this problem, take the example of mental illness. India has a population of nearly a billion but only 6,000 trained psychiatrists and psychologists. "You have a European-North American model that is incredibly expensive and almost irrelevant for most of the world," Bill Drayton says. "You can't just rail and say, 'Well, India should have a million psychiatrists.' That's not going to happen." Social entrepreneurs working separately in India, Brazil, Mexico, and elsewhere have developed similar strategies: low-cost family, peer-to-peer, and community-based treatment models that draw heavily on existing social and cultural strengths. "In each case they find that something other than professional staffing is required to solve the problem on any significant scale," Drayton says.

Ashoka's largest "mosaic" incorporates the experiences of 180 fellows working in education and with impoverished, neglected, and abused children around the world. Here Ashoka has identified a clear pattern. In an effort to help children, the group that fellows most often turn to for assistance is the children themselves. "In fellow after fellow you see new ideas of how you can put children in charge of a series of activities, and how empowering them has a strong impact on their academic performance and their motivation," Valdemar de Oliveira Neto, the head of Ashoka's global fellowship program, explains.

Drayton has recently imported that principle to the United States in a new organization called Youth Venture -- a support network for young people who want to launch their own organizations, or ventures, to change their schools or communities. "We will turn this thing into the twenty-first-century alternative to the scouting movement," he says, with the characteristic confidence and boldness of the entrepreneur.

David Bornstein is the author of (1996), which grew out of an article he wrote for The Atlantic. He is at work on a book about social entrepreneurship.

Illustration by J. W. Stewart

The Atlantic Monthly; January 1998; Changing the World on a Shoestring; Volume 281, No. 1; pages 34 - 39.