A conversation with Ashoka on October 28, 2013


Note: This set of notes gives an overview of the major points made by Bill Drayton.


Good Ventures spoke with Bill Drayton, the CEO and founder of Ashoka, about his views on the shortcomings of foundations and the activities of Ashoka, including its latest initiative aimed at helping children learn cognitive empathy. Ashoka provides start-up financing and support to social entrepreneurs worldwide. 

The shortcomings of foundations

Mr. Drayton recommends avoiding the words “foundation” and “to fund” since they draw a social investor into a pattern of expectations and interactions that will limit what he or she can do. While Ashoka receives some support from foundations, it tries to keep such support as modest as possible. (It partners much more with peer business entrepreneurs who want to have social impacts as big as those they have achieved in business.) Often what a social entrepreneur needs and what a foundation or government agency can provide do not overlap.

Foundations develop strategies, and that makes it hard for them to be receptive to new, different ideas from outside their walls. Program officers tend not to be receptive to ideas from social entrepreneurs that cut across programs. The more powerful the idea, the more boundaries it is likely to cut across — and the more the officers must learn and the more they must consult with others in the foundation.

There’s also mismatch between the time horizons of foundations and social entrepreneurs. It typically takes eight to ten years of working in a field for a social entrepreneur to conceive and then get an enterprise off the ground — and then it takes many years truly to tip society. Social entrepreneurship is a lifelong activity, whereas the time horizon for a foundation or government agency is often one to three years. Social entrepreneurs — whose work is their life, not a job — need long-term loyalty from their investing partners; but that also is structurally almost impossible for foundations.

Social entrepreneurs must build an organization (and a movement of thousands of local changemakers who will champion their change), but that is considered “overhead.” The sociology of people who are drawn to foundations is not the same as that of entrepreneurs. It’s hard for foundations to identify the people who are going to have the biggest, most disruptive impact.

Foundations, as a structure, drive philanthropy to do lots of small things. For example, the MacArthur Foundation started with the intent of a small number of large grants. The staff size went up, and the average grant size went down.

Foundations are coming from a position of power. They don’t have to listen. Businesses have to listen to the markets they serve. Foundations don’t, and they frequently don’t. It’s corrosive to be in the “foundation” box; the system is badly designed. Sometimes it’s necessary to do away with the old language. Google.org and the Omidyar Network were not called foundations. They use words like “entrepreneurship” and “social investment.”

Ashoka’s activities

Ashoka excels at finding, launching and supporting social entrepreneurs and pattern-changing ideas. Over half of all Ashoka Fellows have changed national policy within five years of launch.

One example is Felipe Vergara and his social enterprise Lumni, which creates for-profit funds to finance the education of students who agree to pay a fixed percentage of their income for a certain amount of time after graduation. (Read more here.)

Ashoka also supports group entrepreneurship, helping groups of entrepreneurs think and entrepreneur together by field. For example, Ashoka and its 700 (out of 3,000) Fellows who are focused on children and young people have defined a new paradigm for growing up that they feel is essential in a changing world. As change accelerates, the rules cover less and less. Any person who has not learned to be guided by a high level of “cognitive empathy” will hurt others — and will be marginalized. Therefore Ashoka and its Fellows, using its new group entrepreneurship approach, have set to work to change the mindset of parents and educators over the next five to six years to ensure that every child does master empathy.

Three levels of impact

There are three levels of impact:

The field of philanthropy needs to distinguish between these three levels. Often foundations ask social entrepreneurs to pursue direct service results when their focus is pattern change.

Group entrepreneurship

Ashoka and leading social entrepreneur Fellows across the world are organizing to enable society quickly to see that children and young people without the complex social skills, starting with cognitive empathy — which are essential in a world defined by fast change, not repetition — will never get to use the knowledge whose transfer has historically been the goal of education. It is group entrepreneurship, which is an entirely new approach, that makes this possible.

There are 80,000 elementary schools in the U.S. Ashoka can’t deal with them directly. But Ashoka feels it can tip America’s mindset with a manageable 91 teams trigger: 60 schools, 30 writers and publishers and one team of Ashoka Fellows. The criteria they are using to select schools include diversity, a track record of causing change, and a team of four to six people at the school who are committed to the goal of helping all children master cognitive empathy. (Read more here.)