Interview – Bill Drayton

The now ubiquitous term social entrepreneur was coined by Ashoka: Innovators for the Public, in 1980. Ashoka now refers to social entrepreneurship as a profession. And, as Bill Drayton, founder of Ashoka, explained to Caroline Hartnell, they also believe that social entrepreneurs’ combination of visionary and practical qualities is so distinctive that it is actually reflected physiologically, in the structure of the brain itself.

What does Ashoka mean by the term?

I think the single most important element is what we call entrepreneurial quality. When we select Fellows we have five criteria. Entrepreneurial quality is the narrow one that very few people fit. There are thousands of people who are creative, goal-setting, problem-solving, altruistic, who have wonderful ideas and are never going to change the pattern in their field. There are millions of people who are good administrators, who can get things done. We don’t mean those sorts of people when we say entrepreneurs. hese people are driven in a very deep way with a life mission, a self-definition that says they chey change a patten their society, society-wide. That is true of every single social entrepreneur. Florence Nightingale was not interested in solving the problems of one or two hospitals in the Crimea. She saw that the whole system had to be changed.

No other class of person has this drive. he social entrepreneur has exactly the same personality as the business entrepreneur.

How do you recognize those people who will be able to deliver on their ambition?

First there is the vision, the idea that they, and we, believe will change the pattern across their field on a very wide basis — all India, all Brazil, the Indian region. They have to be wedded to that idea in a very literal sense. They are going to be spending 10,15, 20 years with it.

The idea will have been designed for society-wide impact from the beginning. The entrepreneur intuitively does not accept idiosyncratic solutions for one locale which would not make it a model for society as a whole. So that’s one part of it: they have a vision and they are totally committed to it.

One test we have found very useful is to see if there is someone in their family who has very strong values. We found in an analysis we did that with some 70 per cent of our Fellows you could identify a family member who had exceptionally strong values. It didn’t matter what they were religious, conservative, progressive, whatever.

The other part is that they are equally committed to what we call the how-tos. How do you get from having an idea to changing the whole of society? How do you get institutions to change? How do you get the funding?

So social entrepreneurs are very visionary and very concrete and practical at the same time?

Yes, exactly. That duality means that they are typically double dominant, right and left brain; it’s quite physiological. The Terry Tan Centre on Entrepreneurship did a study on this.

This is completely different from the idealist. If you talk to the normal creative and altruistic person and start pressing them — ‘How do you deal with this problem?’ —  what they will do is describe the poetry of Xanadu to you again: here’s where we’re going, won’t it be lovely? It’s a poem, not an engineering drawing. The entrepreneur has a poem and an engineering drawing.

To be a good entrepreneur you have to be completely open to every nuance that the environment signals. You have to be the ultimate realist.

To give you a small concrete example: one of our early Fellows created the first anti-corruption centres. He saw immediately that the people he was helping had to be protected from victimization. He engaged students from the local high school as volunteers because he then got the ear of middle-class families in the district. He asked farmers to bring complaints in groups of 25 because it’s hard to victimize 25 farmers and easy to get at one. He asked us to bring a Supreme Court Justice to do a training session because that would be a signal that there would be  consequences if you messed with this person.

What do you do once you’ve identified these people? Other people I’ve heard describe themselves as ‘venture philanthropists’ give an enormous amount of support and assistance all the way through their period of funding — I’ve heard them talk about monthly meetings and technical assistance and business advice.

Our philosophy is more to help people to help themselves and their colleagues. With our small staff, we don’t think we could ever provide anything resembling what the Fellows can do to help one another.

In fact, management consultants McKinsey & Co did a pro bono project for us that involved analysing the sorts of programmes you are describing, which provide training and whatnot to their grantees, and they just got a litany of complaints. This model of venture philanthropy carries over the core of the power relationship from the old bureaucratic model: we know best, funding is contingent on doing as we say.

We do provide occasional direct help, but our strategy is very different.

The most important thing we do for someone who has just been elected an Ashoka Fellow is to invite them into a family of their peers. Suddenly you know that you belong to a profession: there is a word that describes what you do.

Now people mangle the words ‘social entrepreneur’; it’s a very popular term and everyone claims that they are one. When we got started, if you said ‘social or public entrepreneur’ you would usually get a blank stare. It’s amazing how quickly the situation has changed.  to help people understand that social entrepreneurship is absolutely crucial to society and that it’s a great career: you can support your family, make a big impact, have great fun and great colleagues.

Electing someone a Fellow probably means reassuring their family about this. In much of the world there is no social security system and the family is it: if you decide to leave your tenured teacher’s post or your company job, your family are likely to be mystified — to use the kindest word. So we come in and say, we are honouring you, and furthermore there will be bread on the table for the next three years or more.

Once a Fellow, you begin to meet others who think the same way. You start to realize that you are not an oddball, that others are struggling with the same problems. You can begin to have those how-to conversations about how you deal with the forces of inertia and suchlike. You can share contacts: an introduction to the right person can save a year.Aellow, can then go through the door and sit down with the Aga Khan Foundation.
We take the same approach with funding. There is a danger in providing too much financial help to a social entrepreneur at the beginning of their career because at this stage they should be thinking about the long-term financial base for their organization, ultimately for their movement. Our strategy is to help them help themselves solve that problem, not to take the problem off their plate.

Is the collaboration between Fellows mainly at the national level?

Definitely not. We are building a profession that is global in the nature of its work. The social issues that the world is facing are almost all global. In every country in the world, adults are spending less time with children. At the moment each country thinks that this is somehow uniquely their problem, but it’s not. When we bring together the leading social entrepreneurs, suddenly each person sees where their partial solution fits into the larger mosaic. You can’t see the forest at the national level bese there aren’t enough trees.

You mentioned earlier that Ashoka does sometimes give Fellows direct help. Can you give any examples?

For one thing, we have a number of what are known as Challenge Pots for the Fellows. For example, if a group of Fellows wants to get together and collaborate, especially across national lines, we will help them with a seed grant. They will have to find long-term funding, but we can help them with the first meeting.

We have a group of ten or so Fellows who are dealing with indigenous people in a number of countries around the Amazon Basin. They first got together with a small seed grant and they now collaborate regularly with one another in all sorts of ways.

Another resource we have is the Center for Social Entrepreneurship in São Paulo,  established with McKinsey to provide the very best management consultancy to social entrepreneurs when they reach the stage of having large organizations and movements. We cannot then look to Fellows to help Fellows, because the whole field is deficient in management.

Ashoka’s Venture Program

Ashoka has elected and supported almost 1,000 Fellows in 35 countries since 1980 in areas such as education, the environment, health and human/gender rights. Fellows receive a stipend for an average of three years based on local salary level and individual need.

Ashoka Fellows are selected using a knockout initial test and five criteria, set out in a special training booklet:

  • A new idea: is this person possessed by a truly new idea for solving a public need?
  • Creativity both in goal-setting and in problem-solving.
  • Entrepreneurial quality: can this person rest until his or her vision is the new pattern across society?
  • Social impact of the idea: how many people will be affected, and how beneficial will the effect be?
  • Ethical fibre: is this person totally honest and trustworthy? Would you instinctively feel safe relying on him/her if you were in danger?

Because of the rigorous selection procedure, Ashoka believes the failure rate is minimal. Fellows are required to report back to Ashoka twice a year. Although no external evaluation has been carried out, in 1997 Ashoka initiated an internal ‘Measuring Effectiveness’ system pilot questionnaire to 81 Fellows. Firs after election, nearly every respondent had established an institution to support their initial idea. 43 per cent claimed national policy impact, 62 per cent claimed that other organizations had replicated their models, and 59 per cent had received national or international awards.

Ashoka’s monthly online publication at is dedicated to the growing profession of social entrepreneurship.

For more information about Ashoka: Innovators for the Public, contact James Figetakis at their  DC.
Tel +1 703 527 8300
Fax +1 703 527 8383


Rosa María Ruíz
Bolivia. Elected an Ashoka Fellow in 1996
In her work to protect Bolivia’s new Madidi National Park, Rosa has convinced governments, national and international agencies and scientific organizations that the Tacana Indians, who live on the land, should be seen as a key asset for the park and must be allowed to remain on their traditional lands. She is now expanding her efforts to five other recently established national parks in Bolivia and Peru.

Fabio Rosa
Brazil. Elected an Ashoka Fellow in 1989
In the 1960s and 1970s sophisticated and expensive technology meant that many rural people were denied electrical services. This affected their quality of life and fuelled the exodus of poor rural Brazilians to overcrowded cities. Fabio’s pioneering low-cost approach has reduced the costs of electrification by 90 per cent. By 1997 it was estimated that 1.5 million people, in 18 Brazilian states and in Uruguay, had benefited from his efforts.

The MacArthur Fellows Program

If you are a citizen or permanent resident of the USA, an unexpected phone call in June could signal the award of a MacArthur Fellowship, bringing with it an annual income of between $30,000 and $75,000 r five years (the amount depends on age). But don’t bother to apply.

Fellows are nominated by more than 100 designated nominators across the country – the MacArthur Fellows Program’s ‘talent scouts’. They are asked to propose extraordinarily creative and promising individuals, whose work is likely, sooner or later, to make a significant difference in human thought and action, who are at points in their careers when a fellowship could make a real difference.

The programme was inspired by an article entitled ‘Of Venture Research’ by Dr George Burch (American Heart Journal, December 1976). Burch argued that money should be set aside to allow truly creative individuals the free time to be alone and think ‘without the annoyances and distractions imposed by grant applications, reviewing committees, and pressure to publish’.

For more information about the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, visit its website at

Common Futures Forum aims for ‘nuclear fusion’

The Common Futures Forum (CFF) is the first global network of young social
entrepreneurs. According to its website, its mission is ‘to arouse a "nuclear fusion" by creating a close network among amazing young agent of changes to learn from each other and from well-known international experts about new ways of action to fulfil their dreams for their societies, and, together, to work for a Common Future of human progress’.

Launched in 1998 by the Global Meeting of Generations (GMG), a partnership
of 16 international organizations, the CFF’s first task was to select as fellows 60 young social entrepreneurs, aged 20–32, from 42 different countries.

The CFF helps its fellows develop the knowledge and skills they need to scale up their visions and actions become more effective as community lead fellows have now organized theselves in a network that focuses on two principal areas: information exchange and outreach (identifying young visionaries and encouraging them to become social entrepreneurs). 

For more information, contact Mélanie Beauvy, CFF Coordinator.
Tel +1 202 884 8580
Fax +1 202 884 8499

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