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.