Tuesday, April 24, 2007


The Entrepreneur's Revolution and You

The most powerful force in the world is a pattern-changing big idea - if it is in the hands of an entrepreneur of equivalent ambition.

Each such major pattern shift triggers cascades of follow-on innovations, adaptations, and local applications. The railroad and today's digital revolutions are prime business examples.

"Social entrepreneurship has multiplied, competition has arrived, and the sector is racing to catch up. Building the new institutions needed to support these historical forces is, of course, Ashoka's purpose. "
This is just as true in the social arena. Florence Nightingale redefined her field every bit as much as Andrew Carnegie did his.

Whether or not society generates a vigorous flow of these critical major innovations depends on its ability to foster and support the entrepreneurs. The economic success that has transformed the world over the last several centuries has ultimately been rooted in society's learning, first, how to tolerate business entrepreneurs and, then, how to support and reward them generously and at every step.

Social entrepreneurs have not been so fortunate. Probably because they made governments nervous, they long experienced more persecution than assistance. Florence Nightingale was an exception.

The direct result has been the notorious squalor of the social sector. Inadequate innovation - especially when compared to the steadily compounding productivity gains achieved by an entrepreneurial and competitive business world - has left social organizations sclerotic, service quality poor, costs high, salaries low, and repute lower still.

The last two decades have seen an extraordinary historical turning point, the breakout of the social sector from this squalor. Across most of the world, the logjam suddenly broke. Social entrepreneurship has multiplied, competition has arrived, and the sector is racing to catch up. Building the new institutions needed to support these historical forces is, of course, Ashoka's purpose.

In country after country the number of citizen organizations is up a hundred, even a thousand-fold. Tiny Slovakia went from a handful in 1989 to over 10,000 last year. According to the overall economy of the countries studied by the Johns Hopkins Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project, "the nonprofit sector outpaced the overall growth of employmentĂ˝ by nearly 2.5 to 1."¹ According to the conservative estimate of the Yearbook of International Organizations, the number of international citizen sector organizations (defined as groups with operations in more than one country) has reached more than 26,000 today, up from 6,000 in 1990. The magazine World Watch provides corollary data on the number of citizen sector groups operating at a national or local level. Approximately 1 million such organizations work in India. Of the approximately 2 million citizen sector organizations working in the United States, 70 percent of them were established in the last 30 years. Eastern Europe has seen well over 100,000 organizations established in the seven years following the fall of the Berlin Wall.²

With learning and maturity, the average size, skill level, and competitive sharpness of these organizations has also increased. They are, moreover, becoming far more than the sum of their parts: We are seeing the emergence of the same sort of open, competitive-yet-collaborative relationships that marked the birth of the modern competitive business sector three centuries ago.

This revolution in the organization of human society has gone little noticed. Even though extraordinarily rapid in historical terms, its pace does not fit the shutter speed of either the press or political cycle.
"Because leading social entrepreneurs dealing with the sort of truly major pattern changes that Ashoka seeks out are grappling with historical forces that span the globe, social entrepreneurship is the first profession being organized at the global level."

Nonetheless, when the history of these times is written, no other change will compete with it in importance. This sort of fundamental transformation in how society organizes itself is a tectonic shift far greater than the railroad or the creation of the nursing profession. This change is, moreover, essential to human evolution and survival: It opens the way for us to adapt far more quickly and with self-preservative balance to the social and environmental challenges our business success has unleashed.

The job of the pattern-change social entrepreneur is to recognize whenever a part of society is stuck in an inefficient or harmful pattern, to conceive a better and safe alternative, to make that vision realistic and then a refined reality, and then to persuade his or her entire society to make the leap to this new way.

Spotting and solving these problems requires the entrepreneur because only (s)he is married to a vision and cannot rest until it has transformed all of society. No other type has this inner need. Scholars and artists come to rest when they express an idea. Professionals when they solve a client's problem. Managers when they have enabled their organization to succeed.

This need makes the entrepreneur persist for years and decades thorough all these steps and despite the resistance of myriad inertial forces that would frustrate others. They instinctively reject solutions that depend on local circumstances that would not work universally. Every day they are listening carefully and realistically for problems and openings. If something doesn't work, it is gone. The idea is constantly evolving and strengthening.

The entrepreneur goes after what is stuck. It could be society's failure to deal effectively with corruption. Or prohibitively expensive rural electrification arrangements. Or land ownership laws that make it virtually impossible for people to work together in a multiple use forest environment. Or trade unions stuck in the heavy industry era that have not evolved to serve the growing portion of today's work force that is mobile. Or. . . . The needs are endless, and they will only grow as change accelerates.

Ashoka: Innovators for the Public is the world's association of leading social entrepreneurs. That is to say, social entrepreneurs introducing changes that will significantly change the pattern in their field (e.g., young people or the environment or human rights) across a giant country (e.g., India or Brazil) or a multinational region of equivalent size.

Ashoka's most important job is to help our rapidly emerging field develop the institutions and patterns that will enable it to contribute as powerfully as possible, that will allow all of us in the profession to collaborate, to help one another, to be far more than the sum of our parts.

Because leading social entrepreneurs dealing with the sort of truly major pattern changes that Ashoka seeks out are grappling with historical forces that span the globe, social entrepreneurship is the first profession being organized at the global level. This is a challenge that requires constant vigilance lest we slip into narrower, most commonly national, lines of thinking.

Ashoka is the field's first professional association. It, for example, has launched an initiative designed to help the citizen sector learn that it can and must build its own broad base of grassroots support (money, time, and information). Otherwise over-reliance on a few foundations and government will lead to both inadequate support and co-option. Ashoka is also working to define and encourage the development of new forms of financing for the sector that could serve the many needs that foundations and government find difficult to reach.

Ashoka is also building new patterns of collaboration among Fellows working on the same issue globally, e.g., the over 300 Fellows working with young people or the 143 Fellows bringing innovation to health. Each has a powerful but partial answer. Only by bringing all these ideas together can one see the few universal principles that could help anyone wrestling with the issue. There simply are too few trees in any one country to see the forest.

Over the next year Ashoka will launch a global Academy for the field's most successful practitioners. It will also experiment with the first firm for practitioners (analogous to the first law or consulting firm) that will allow members to benefit from the sort of economies of reputation, recruitment, common services, cross-fertilization, and colleagueship that the older professions have long enjoyed.

Over the last two decades Ashoka, acting as the field's first venture support group (analogous to the venture capital firms of business), has helped launch over 1,000 important new social change ideas, the long careers of the social entrepreneurs behind them, and the institutions needed to support both. This critical service, which is what Ashoka is best known for and most experienced in providing, will continue as long as there is a need for social change.

Each such entrepreneur and idea that succeeds, moreover, encourages many others to care for society's wellbeing and to champion changes they feel are needed. The multiplication of such decentralized concern and effective action is, of course, the essence of the democratic revolution.

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