Ashoka’s Vision to Develop an International Age of Social Entrepreneurship

By Nathan Edwards

The ashoka tree has been the symbol of Ashoka since its inauguration in 1980. (Image by Nathan Edwards)
The ashoka tree has been the symbol of Ashoka since its inauguration in 1980. (Image by Nathan Edwards)

The world of international development has been regularly challenged by growing social issues. The need has emerged for institutions other than the government to address many of these matters. Ashoka is one non-government organization that has taken the reins.

Ashoka houses a peer network of social entrepreneurs who work to create systematic change to global issues by means of public policy. The organization has brought together thought leaders from both the private and public sector who share a vision for a future where everyone has the ability to ignite change.

The international non-government organization was founded by Bill Drayton in 1980 in India. It has since expanded around the world with a network of 3,000 fellows present in 70 countries and a headquarters in Washington, D.C. I am privileged to be working as an intern in the Ashoka Brasil office located in São Paulo this summer.

When the Ashoka Brasil office was launched in 1986, it began its acquisition of what is now one of the largest networks of social entrepreneurs around the world. Through the years, the development of the social sectors within this nation has, to an extent, been largely affected by the innovative solutions of these social entrepreneurs.

I have quickly learned that this visionary engine is successfully altering our conception of what it means to be a world citizen. It works behind the scenes in the development and reformation of social values in areas of economics, health, human rights, civic participation, environment and education. Yet, rather than imposing change upon a population who may or may not desire it, Ashoka provides the tools necessary for both the social entrepreneur and the community to take their own action.

The means of enacting this change is entrusted to Ashoka’s network of fellows and their projects, 357 of which have been selected in Brasil alone. Candidates for fellowship undergo a comprehensive selection process that evaluates each individual based on the following criteria: their new innovative idea, social impact, entrepreneurship, creativity and ethical fiber. This evaluation lasts a minimum of six months and consists of a number of interviews from both local Ashoka fellows and global Ashoka staff.  Only a handful of fellows are selected each year.

Currently, 54.6 percent of Brasil’s fellows operate in the São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro areas, and 24 percent administer projects pertaining to human rights issues.

In 2008, the financial crisis that impacted the world also brought challenges to the social sector, including Ashoka. Upwards of 60 international offices, previously funded by the headquarters in Washington, D.C., were now asked to be self-sustainable. Maybe more than others, Brasil’s office was challenged by this request due to a culture of philanthropy in the nation that is not yet as developed as in Europe and the United States.

During this period, the office put its efforts into venture fellowship and developing networks of executive strategic partners.  This altered focus was in an effort to reach Ashoka’s next vision coined, “Everyone a Changemaker World.”  They are working with mavens, businesses, philanthropists and fellows alike to disseminate what Ashoka believes are the necessary skills to becoming a change-maker.  These skills include empathy, collaborative leadership and interdisciplinary teamwork.  Ashoka Brasil is working hard to be a leading generator of entrepreneurial answers to the social issues of contemporary society.

Now the office is looking to focus its search and selection of fellows into the north and northeastern regions of Brazil. Although including 14 states of Brazil’s 26, the north and northeast regions only account for around 24 percent of Ashoka’s fellows. This area is notorious for its high levels of poverty and limited investment.

For the next panel of fellow selection, Ashoka Brasil is looking to present northeastern candidates focusing on issues of informal education and economic development. In order to do this, the office is creating a network of nominators attuned to the this region’s trends of development who can identify potential fellows .

Leading Ashoka Brasil’s efforts is current office director, Claudia Duran.  Duran began at Ashoka in August of 2012 as manager of Ashoka’s partnership with global management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. before acquiring her current title in September of 2013.

Duran has been working hard with her team to develop a local strategy aligned with the NGO’s global mission: “At Ashoka Brasil we constantly search and support social innovators in all areas, working closely with social entrepreneurs from our network, companies and civil society.”

Duran admits that there are always challenges, “It has been difficult to do fundraising in Brasil, there is a very different culture for supporting social sector initiatives.” She believes that, “Ashoka still needs to be better positioned in the private sector and needs to find mavens that can disseminate and support our work.”

Yet, Duran is optimistic about the future of Ashoka in Brasil. “I would like to see the Fellow network much more active, interacting with Ashoka and amongst themselves,” Duran said, “I also would like to better position Ashoka Brasil in the market so to have more strategic partners in the private sector supporting Ashoka and Fellow initiatives.”  Simultaneously she wants to work, “collaboratively with these partners to help develop their corporate social responsibility strategies.”

Ashoka has been the world leader of social entrepreneurship since its establishment. Now, the organization is looking to encourage others to continue to support social entrepreneurs and their initiatives. The goal of the organization is to influence a world where everyone has awareness of the challenges that surround them and the capacity to ignite change.

 Nathan Edwards is a sophomore Sociology and Anthropology major with a concentration in cross-cultural studies at Carleton College in Northfield, MN.  This summer, he is working as an intern with the international non-government organization, Ashoka, in its São Paulo, Brazil office while conducting anthropological research on the NGO sector. Nathan is interested in cross-cultural journalism and community development, specifically, in developing countries.  He would like to pursue a career where he studies the varying communities, cultures and social dynamics within a nation and then finds a means to illuminate the diverse perspectives. 

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