Knowing History, Serving It: Ashoka's Theory of Change

(Bill Drayton, September 2003)

Ashoka's job is to make Everyone a Changemaker™. To help create a world where everyone has the freedom, confidence, and skills to turn challenges into solutions. This allows each person the fullest, richest life. And a society so constituted will evolve and adapt faster and more surely than any other: Each person, rather better than the body's white blood "attack" cells, courses though society spotting challenges and then conceiving and putting in place the next, better step.

Ashoka's own community of changemakers has the opportunity to make a very big difference — and therefore the responsibility to do our best — in advancing this goal. We have this opportunity for several reasons:

  1. Ashoka understands and serves a historical process, the transformation of the citizen half of the world's operations from a pre-modern to the same entrepreneurial and competitive architecture that has driven business ahead over the last three centuries. Such fundamental structural change is historically extremely rare.
  2. Ashoka is an association of a large share of the world's leading social entrepreneurs. Its values and culture are sharply, deeply, and strictly focused on serving this core membership. No one knows them, their needs, their life cycle, their very distinctive perspectives and ways of thinking, their values, and their dreams as well. Moreover, Ashoka is uniquely positioned to see both the individual pieces and the emerging patterns created by this "client base" across the world.
  3. Ashoka has been deeply engaged in learning from and learning to serve both this historical process and its leading social entrepreneur constituents across the globe throughout the last quarter century. These years have been the years when the citizen sector, led by its entrepreneurial cutting edge, "tipped" irreversibly onto its new competitive path and entered a period of rapid catch-up productivity acceleration and growth. Ashoka now has a rich pipeline of proven, high leverage interventions ready to spread globally and an institution that spots needs and then builds and adapts quickly.
  4. As the field matures, Ashoka is no longer alone. It has a growing number of partners and potential partners.

Ashoka is enormously strengthened by the flow of both ideas and practical collaborations from these partners — from our decade old colleagueship with Avina/Nueva in Latin America to the month old alliance between changemakers.net and The Skoll Foundation's "Social Edge". Ashoka has helped about fifty groups learn as much as possible from its venture methodology and then get started providing analogous services to one group or another. Its new "strategic diamond" organizational focal points are specifically designed to weave whatever strengths exist in the areas where Ashoka is working together with its own and its Fellows' programs in order to maximize the synergies among all these pieces.

Ashoka's core strategy is to find and drive home the highest leverage, most important interventions appropriate to each historical stage that will (1) advance social entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurship and (2) speed the transformation of the citizen sector and, more importantly, enable it to crystallize in the wisest possible ways.

Ashoka is an entrepreneurial institution serving entrepreneurs. Its opportunities require strongly intrapreneurial leadership. It must therefore be an integrated/decentralized institution staffed by collegial/intrapreneurial people.

Ashoka's first contribution was to create the functional equivalent of the venture programs that help top businesses take off. Helping one of the world's leading social entrepreneurs have the freedom and key supports necessary to fly is very probably the world's most highly leveraged, highest impact investment:

  • It launches a big idea that over time is likely to change its field on a continental scale.
  • It launches the social entrepreneur into a lifetime of high impact, independent changemaking.
  • It helps create the institutions needed to support both.
  • Its intervention comes at the moment when a little help means the world.

Each successful social entrepreneur and idea becomes a highly contagious (because enormously empowering) role model that encourages hundreds of others to care and to take social initiative. Such social entrepreneurs are the cutting edge of the democratic revolution — citizens exercising power in society by organizing ideas and others.

Leading social entrepreneurs launch key pattern changes that ripple across applications and geography (every bit as much as major scientific break-throughs) — opening opportunities for myriad local changemakers. The growth of social entrepreneurship spurs the growth of the broader citizen sector, which in turn helps today's entrepreneurs and helps create more tomorrow.

Over its first decade Ashoka often said: "There is nothing more powerful than a big pattern-changing idea if it is in the hands of a first class entrepreneur.  Then Ashoka learned there is something that is more powerful — a community of leading social entrepreneurs working together.

As the field has evolved, the Ashoka team has developed new programs fitted to the needs of each phase. Each possible program must meet two tests before Ashoka will commit to it:

  • Will it make a major difference to the development of social entrepreneurship and of the competitive citizen sector globally?
  • Can Ashoka make it happen? Do we clearly see the "jujitsu" leverage points that will allow us to replace today's seemingly granite wall of current practice with a vigorously self-multiplying new pattern?

Ashoka encourages (e.g., through its Global Collaborations challenge) Fellows, staff, and others in its community to propose and begin to test possible programs. Many of today's key programs started this way. However, as the ideas progress towards large scale, Ashoka applies these two tests ever more tightly.

The table that follows provides sketches of several phases in the evolution of our field (our "market") and provides examples of Ashoka responses.

Ashoka's interventions take place on three different but interconnecting planes:

  1. It launches and provides full life cycle support for individual top tier social innovations, entrepreneurs, and their institutions: stipends, community, and specialized inputs from strategic partners in management, communications, law, technology and finance.
  2. It is building patterns, frameworks, supports, and institutions that allow the members of the community to have impacts far greater together than they could apart. Two examples: (1) the mosaic initiatives, which allow leading social entrepreneurs working on the same broad issue to share ideas, select those that are the most universally useful, and work as a team to spread them and tip their field globally, and (2) collaborations across the profession to address its greatest common strategic needs e.g., encouraging many more people to join our new and mushrooming field.
  3. It is helping to build key elements of the field's long term architecture — e.g., the creation of much-needed new financial service institutions to serve the sector.

Often interventions are important on several levels. The mosaic initiatives, for example, greatly enrich individual Fellows who can complement the principles and approaches they developed with those created by the rest of the field. Second, by working together to articulate and then market these principles, they can affect the lives of far more people far more deeply than they could working alone. Moreover, by helping one another and then collaborating to market their joint product, the intensity and value of the fellowship or community will grow sharply. Third, after several such powerfully successful experiences, the field will know long into the future both the great value of and how to organize such mosaic initiatives wherever a new issue comes into focus. The field will have gained the capacity to engage in group entrepreneurship — probably the most important shared capacity this field can have.

In the 1980s, Ashoka developed and then, over four years, went to global scale with its first major contribution or "product": launching and helping leading social entrepreneurs and their ideas succeed. This remains a cornerstone contribution, and we believe it always will be because the need for social entrepreneurship will only increase with time.

In the 1990s, Ashoka's market matured rapidly creating multiple and strongly interdependent new needs. The membership, which we individually and collectively exist to serve, then insistently drew us in to deal with these new needs and opportunities.

We have developed, by and large tested and refined, and now are ready to move quickly to implement these new programs. We are now entering our second period of rapid growth.

This second cycle is significantly different from the first. It involves more elements. Much of the power comes from the synergy among them. Many elements focus more on systemic change than direct service to individual entrepreneurs. This cycle is more complex and variable. Moreover, because the field is moving faster at this more mature stage, we have less time.

This next stage in the field's evolution requires new institutions. Much of Ashoka's work product in this new cycle is new processes and institutions.

Success also requires Ashoka to evolve significantly. A few examples:

  • Each program (e.g., every mosaic initiative, stimulating a new social financial services sector, or the field's Academy) must have a dedicated, powerful global intrapreneur to succeed. Ashoka, therefore, must look increasingly like a flat professional firm with a growing number of "partner" intrapreneurs, supported by high quality "junior partners" and "associates."
  • Leadership must come very significantly from Ashoka's leading social (and business) entrepreneur core membership. These members and Ashoka staff should be largely interchangeable, both in terms of initiating and running projects and, as much as possible, in terms of careers. Another reason staff must be "collegial intrapreneurs."
  • All these intrapreneur-led global programs must be melded with one another and with the increasingly rich body of institutions the citizen sector is developing regionally. Ashoka's new cross-cutting practice groups will help with the first part of this challenge.

Far more important are Ashokaýs four main "strategic diamond" teams. They are comprised of Ashoka's front line staff and other active members of its community in the four regions with 85 percent of the worldýs citizen sector activity. While Ashoka will provide appropriate lesser levels of service elsewhere, it will focus its implementation and integration efforts in these four areas. Each of these four teams (and their leaders) have three performance goals/measures for the next five years: (1) contributing importantly to building as strong and wisely designed a citizen sector in their diamond as possible; (2) maximizing service to Ashokaýs core top business and social entrepreneur members; and (3) building a brilliant team. To succeed, they must mesh all the program ingredients available into a carefully phased, maximally mutually reinforcing action program. Getting the relationship right between these diamond teams and the global cross-cutting program intrapreneurs is critical.

Not every intrapreneurial initiative will fully succeed. There are too many variables, ranging from intrapreneurial skill to the occasional perfect storm in the surrounding environment.

However, Ashoka's overall program, even if it seems ambitious, is very, very likely to succeed. In addition to the factors listed on page one, Ashoka's design is robust:

  • Intrapreneurs and entrepreneurs intervene at any decision point headed in the wrong direction. They are also the ultimate realists and change their ideas whenever needed to succeed.
  • Parallel programs and redundancy provide further strong insurance. Ashoka has, for example, a dozen programs designed in whole or part to shift the citizen sector onto a path of re-engagement with business. If eight or ten pass the "jujitsu" point of take off, we will probably achieve our purpose. We plan for only one-third of the promising mosaic initiative programs that win small early stage investments to make it to the expensive marketing stage. And, even if several that do enter the marketing phase only have modest impact, the others that fully succeed will be sufficient to provide the energy needed to give our field the capacity for group entrepreneurship. Another example: Changemakers and the mosaic initiatives are both designed independently to tease out and develop the universally empowering principles embedded in the entrepreneurs' practice. If both work, they feed one another. If one fails in one area or even overall, the work still goes ahead.
  • Ashoka encourages and helps other institutions to join the work.

To succeed, Ashoka must be a special community. One that understands its rapidly evolving market. One that is entirely open to its members/clients and their ideas. One that is as rigorous and tough-minded as it is open and creative. One that is as intrapreneurial as its members/clients are entrepreneurial. One that is, therefore, constantly experimenting and learning and improving. One whose intrapreneurs see and care as much about the whole as they do about their piece — and who will, accordingly, weave the pieces together to great mutual and overall benefit. One where the internal spirit mirrors the quality of the global community it serves and is helping to build.

Ashoka the organization must provide the value-based home, the framework and supports, and the discipline necessary for such a community to grow and flourish. Doing so is our biggest challenge.

Bill Drayton, Chair

(September 2003)