Philanthropy Awards spotlight: Ashoka

Jenny Flores
Posted by Jenny Flores
Community Affairs

The 2016 Innovation winner in Bank of the West’s annual Philanthropy Awards is Ashoka, a pioneer in the field of social entrepreneurship.

Michael Zakaras

Michael Zakaras

For 35 years, Ashoka has selected and supported over 3,000 social entrepreneurs (known as Ashoka Fellows) in 70 countries. These are men and women who advance new, transformative ideas in their fields, including education, economic development, the environment, health, and many other areas of human need. Ashoka provides these early-stage innovators with stipends and lifetime engagement in a global network of peers and partners, which helps them grow their ideas and organizations.

In my brief interview below with Michael Zakaras, Ashoka’s strategy and partnerships director, I was inspired by the many large-scale possibilities for change that Ashoka makes possible.

Q: Ashoka has a vision of the future where everyone can be a “changemaker.” What attributes do Ashoka Fellows (changemakers) have in common?

A: Ashoka Fellows are creative and innovative, which is what makes them strong entrepreneurs. They can see the world five years ahead of most in their fields, and they build toward that vision. They are guided by empathy for others, which is central to their commitment to the collective good, and also a big part of how they design solutions. They are deeply devoted to solving a social problem, willing to spend decades advancing a transformative solution. They are also incredibly adept at creating roles for others across society to participate in their solution – in this way, they are mass recruiters of changemakers.

“Empathy” is a word that appears often in your site’s description of your work. Why is empathy so integral in your group’s objectives?

After 35 years of growing the world’s largest network of leading social entrepreneurs, we’ve had the luxury of seeing patterns that help us understand the key ingredients for effective problem solving. Empathy is unquestionably at the center. It provides us with both the will and the skill to be changemakers for the good of all. As we strive together to build a more just, equitable world, Ashoka believes that developing and strengthening our collective capacity for empathy – beginning at the earliest ages – is our best first step. Over the last five years we’ve worked with social entrepreneurs, educators, and many others to figure out how to do so.

Your organization was a pioneer in the field of social entrepreneurship 35 years ago. How does Ashoka stay innovative?

It begins with a commitment to a culture of innovation across all parts of Ashoka – our Fellows of course, but also our staff and our partners. Even in our most junior hires we look for signs of leadership and creative initiative-taking in their past. We’ve also learned from our Fellows that if you just stick to doing what works today, then you’ll probably be behind three to five years from now. So we encourage constant learning and questioning, and set aside dedicated time for discussing future trends and opportunities and how that might influence our strategy.

Why are you now focusing on scaling your model to middle America (Midwest, Rocky Mountains)?

Ashoka has helped grow the field of social entrepreneurship here and around the world for three decades, but we started asking ourselves: What’s next? Does the field look like we want it to here in the U.S.? And the answer was no. We have extreme concentration in a few coastal cities, where most social entrepreneurs are getting noticed and supported. We believe many changemakers are being overlooked, and our new “All America” initiative is our commitment to find them and give them the resources and visibility they need. If we want a resilient country where problems don’t outrun solutions, it’s essential that the best ideas find support no matter where they emerge.

See more about Ashoka’s work in this video:

To see my Q&A with the winner of our 2016 Community Impact Award, click here.

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