Social Innovation Guru Focuses on Pattern Changes – An Interview with Ashoka’s Bill Drayton

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Introduction: In our Winter 2011 issue, China Development Brief introduced the U.S. NGO, Ashoka, the world-renowned leader and promoter of social innovation and change.  In this issue, CDB Researcher, Fu Tao, interviews Ashoka’s founder and CEO, Bill Drayton, on his views concerning social innovation and social innovators, and Ashoka’s global experiences in different countries, including plans to develop a China presence. Drayton as a person appears to express his inner thoughts, upholding virtue and integrity, with a devotion to everyone’s welfare, and using a high degree of creativity to promote changes in social systems and patterns.  He has that special quality required in a social entrepreneur.
Bill Drayton is Ashoka: the founder and CEO of Ashoka and a public servant. He has led the development of the social innovation sector and developed a worldwide network of almost 3000 social innovators. Together they have worked hard to establish a world in which
everyone is a changemaker.” Drayton was a social innovator as a teenager.  When he studied at Harvard and Yale, he started several initiatives including Yale Legislative Services and the Ashoka Table, a weekly interdisciplinary social science forum at Harvard.  In 1970, he worked as a consultant for McKinsey & Company in New York.  From 1977 to 1981, he was the Assistant Administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency where he initiated the emissions trading system.  In 1981, he founded two organizations.  One was Ashoka, the other was Save EPA which later changed its name to Environmental Safety.  In 1984, he was chosen as a MacArthur Fellow which gave him the funding to devote his time to developing Ashoka.  He currently serves on the board of several other organizations, including Youth Venture, Community Greens, and Get American Working!

CDB: How would you define social enterprise (also known as social business) as compared to social entrepreneurship? What standards or essential components should social entrepreneurs have in order to be successful? In addressing social issues, how are social entrepreneurs and traditional NGOs different?

The social investing world is in the middle of another outbreak of embracing “social enterprise,” an idea that has also been associated with impact investing and many other names over the years.  How could one not like investing where one can make a profit and achieve useful social impact?  Moreover, there really are such opportunities – and therefore enticing stories.

Every four to six years this opportunity is discovered anew, given an alluring name, and publicized by its proud discoverer. Firms and funds are launched, and money is committed.

Some of those investment funds find good deals. However, since the number of good opportunities did not suddenly increase, most of the new wave of investor resources either do poorly or are not invested (the smart minority). The enthusiasm then slinks quietly away – until someone else discovers this El Dorado all over, gives it a new name, etc.

These waves focus on only a narrow sliver of the need for social investing.  The full range of opportunity for funding (and people’s time, information in and out, and captive businesses) extends from grants (no financial return) through mixed revenue situations (e.g., a school that earns some fees, seeks grants, and gets a lot of parent volunteering) to diverse business equities.  These waves of enthusiasm, moreover, do very, very little to change the underlying patterns.  They announce a new “investment class” and encourage everyone to go and find deals.  This is about retail investing.

Social entrepreneurship is deeply different. It is about pattern change, not retail deals.  And it is not limited to a narrow financial niche.

Ashoka is not interested in investing in a school or a clinic.  Ashoka social entrepreneurs are about, for example, a new approach to educating or parenting, a new system that spots and roots out fake pharmaceuticals or that connects older and young people to their mutual benefit.  Three-quarters of the Ashoka Fellows have changed the pattern in their field (e.g., environment or rural development) at the national level within five years of launch.  In some circumstances, it is important to give people fish.  It is usually better to teach them how to fish.  The biggest impact, however, is not such direct service, retail work; it is redesigning the fishing industry.

That is what entrepreneurs do.  Social entrepreneurs redesign the fishing industry – to serve the good of all.

What is the background in which social entrepreneurship emerged, and what social impact did/do they have? How does it relate to NGOs or civil society?

The underlying central force of our era is that the rate of change is still escalating exponentially.  So are the number of people causing change and, perhaps most important, the ever-richer combinations and combinations of combinations of people causing change.

In this world, the basic systems of society, which we still tend to think of as being givens, are in fact changing ever more rapidly — with each change triggering yet further changes in other parts of society’s systems.

These changes can easily go in harmful directions.  Thus, for example, right now privacy is suffering terribly.  We need preventive surveillance because now a very few can cause huge harm; the cost of connecting all the dots in all our lives has become negligible; and the dominant digital business model is to give people something, get information in return, and make a profit by selling that information (e.g., via advertising).  Our consequent accelerating loss of privacy is alarming for many reasons, not least the fact that creativity needs privacy.

Who will spot such traps (and new opportunities), care, and be able to help guide society back to better balance?  Systems change requires entrepreneurs; indeed, this is what defines this special type of person.  And here one needs the even more special social entrepreneur: The lives — and therefore the work — of these men and women are devoted from deep within to the good of all.  Consider the founders of the movement that ended slavery; Florence Nightingale, who pioneered the nursing profession; and Muhammad Yunus, who spread microcredit across the globe.

As these examples suggest, social entrepreneurs work wherever the opportunity or need is greatest.  They do not let the definitional or organizational boundaries created to serve yesterday’s solutions get in the way.

However, as the underlying rate of change has accelerated exponentially (this is mathematically true) over the last decades, our field has grown every bit as fast.  We had to invent the term “social entrepreneur” 30 years ago.  Now in virtually all the leading business schools, more students sign up for our field than the old favorites, marketing and finance.  As these social entrepreneurs have gone to work, the productivity, scale, and now globalization of the citizen sector have experienced explosive growth — far much more so than the rest of the economy in the advanced OECD countries where we have reliable statistics.  That is why the social sector in these countries is growing jobs at 2.5 to 3 times the rate of the rest of the economy.

Can you describe your support to social entrepreneurs in the world? What criteria and conditions do you impose when choosing them?

For Ashoka to elect an idea and its entrepreneur (and the institution needed to support both), we must believe that the idea and the person together will change the pattern in an important field (for example, health, the environment, children and young people), at least at a continental level.  Is there an important new idea?  Is the person highly creative, very much an entrepreneur by temperament, and guided by strong ethical fiber?  Is the idea, once demonstrated, one others in that field will copy because they find it new and important and practical?

We are very tough in applying these criteria – using a five step selection process with different people at each step.  Over half the Ashoka Fellows have changed national policy within five years of their launch.  Three quarters have changed the pattern in their field at the national level within the same five years. This is true over the 80 countries where we work.  Our process works.

When one looks at the work of the Ashoka Fellows, on the one hand one is delighted and amazed by the degree to which an idea in the hands of an entrepreneur can, indeed, change the world.  One is also struck by the fact that the ideas are not rocket science.  Any of your readers, if they just gave themselves permission and went at it, could identify a problem (that certainly is not hard!), figure out a solution, and then make it the new pattern.  I hope they will!

What types of NGOs are suitable for a business model approach (that is, in the public interest and also using a business model, as in a social enterprise)? Is it appropriate for advocacy organizations, for example, environmental NGOs?

Social entrepreneurs are not limited to any form, certainly not the narrow sliver of “social enterprise.”  Much of their creativity lies in finding new, practical ways of advancing the good.

What is the role of the social entrepreneur in society?

The social entrepreneur’s job is to create something new.  Something that serves the good of all — and something that works.

The greatest value here comes from something others have never imagined.  A humble willingness to be surprised, even to enjoy the predictably unpredictable is a wise guide for all who want this very special orchid in the forest to bloom and flourish.

Although the new is always a little uncomfortable, the true social entrepreneur is carefully and for deep, reliable reasons, a safe neighbor. The social entrepreneur lives for the day his/her contribution has become society’s new pattern. Controversy and conflict put his/her life purpose at risk.  They do not want to make a statement. They have to make their life contribution. They are not activists or political; they are entrepreneurs.

Ashoka has been working in many countries to promote social entrepreneurship. In the last few years, social entrepreneurship and social innovation have become hot topics and pursuits in the not-for-profit sector in China. What is holding Ashoka back from becoming more involved and promoting it in China? Is it because of timing? What are your plans?

Ashoka has begun work in East Asia over the last several years.  We elected the first two Japan Fellows last month.  (One is transforming care for the elderly — including moving to give half the jobs in the field to those suffering discrimination, including immigrants: The other Fellow is working with the deaf in many countries, including China, to develop one common sign language.)

And on January 28, we launched a special program in the triple disaster-hit northeast for 12- to 20-year-olds with their own dream to help them build their own team and leave an ongoing change for the good.  Eighty local young people came and are at work. One example is a 14-year-old girl who lost family and is living in refugee housing noticed that many of the people living there were isolated. She is therefore putting in place a simple meeting place with coffee for the equivalent of 20 U.S. cents. She plans more such centers.

One of my favorite encounters in this Ashoka Youth Venture program in southern Japan was a 17-year-old Mongolian exchange student who is helping other non-Japanese, who have trouble getting jobs there, help tourists from China.  Do you have a moment’s doubt that she will be a great contributor in life?  Or that she is helping all the other young people working with her learn empathy and teamwork and also absorb the idea that they too can become changemakers?

We hope to begin work more fully in China and Korea soon. In both cases, we are looking for a superb caliber person who can guide us to serve in wise and sensitive ways. We need someone who is himself or herself a proven entrepreneur, who intuitively “gets” the Ashoka vision, who has strong social and emotional intelligence, who has exceptional ethical fiber, and who can be a full member of a global team that uses English as our common language.

In the meantime, we have taken small steps to share. We were delighted when David Bornstein’s How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas (Oxford and 30 other publishers), the excellent classic introduction to our field, was translated into both forms of Chinese.  We have brought a series of Ashoka leading social entrepreneur Fellows from around the world to universities and other forums in China to help introduce our field and the Fellows’ ideas. We have a number of Fellows, an Ashoka Support Network group, and other programs in Hong Kong.  A number of Fellows from many other parts of the world have brought their work to China.

Once we find our Representative, we will proceed, as we always do, balancing respectful learning and our desire to move ahead. We will certainly come to you with many questions.

In Brief

CDB Researcher, Fu Tao, interviews Ashoka’s founder and CEO, Bill Drayton, on his views concerning social innovation and social innovators, and Ashoka’s global experiences in different countries, including plans to develop a China presence
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