What characterizes a leading social entrepreneur? How does Ashoka decide which candidates to recommend and which to turn away?
Ashoka's selection process is anchored by our five criteria against which all Fellow candidates are evaluated:
The Knockout Test: A New Idea
Ashoka cannot elect someone to the Fellowship unless he or she is possessed by a new idea—a new solution or approach to a social problem—that will change the pattern in a field, be it human rights, the environment, or any other. We evaluate the idea historically and against its contemporaries in the field, looking for innovation and real change potential.
Successful social entrepreneurs must be creative both as goal-setting visionaries and as problem solvers capable of engineering their visions into reality. Creativity is not a quality that suddenly appears—it is almost always apparent from youth onward. Among the questions we might ask: Does this individual have a vision of how he or she can meet some human need better than it has been met before? Does the candidate have a history of creating other new visions?
Perhaps our most important criterion, entrepreneurial quality is the defining characteristic of first class entrepreneurs. It defines leaders who see opportunities for change and innovation and devote themselves entirely to making that change happen. These leaders often have little interest in anything beyond their mission, and they are willing to spend the next ten to fifteen years making a historical development take place. This total absorption is critical to transforming a new idea into reality, and it is for this reason that Ashoka insists that candidates commit themselves full-time to their ideas during the launch phase.
Social Impact of the Idea
This criterion focuses on the candidate's idea, not the candidate. Ashoka is only interested in ideas that it believes will change the field significantly and that will trigger nationwide impact or, for smaller countries, broader regional change. For example, Ashoka will not support the launch of a new school or clinic unless it is part of a broader strategy to reform the education or health system at the national level and beyond.
Social entrepreneurs introducing major structural changes to society have to ask a lot of people to change how they do things. If the entrepreneur is not trusted, the likelihood of success is significantly reduced. Ashoka asks every participant in the selection process to evaluate candidates for these qualities rigorously. To do so often requires one to resort to instinct and gut feelings, not just rational analysis. The essential question is: "Do you trust this person absolutely?" If there is any doubt, a candidate will not pass.
The Selection Process for the Ashoka Fellowship
Ashoka searches the world for leading social entrepreneurs through an intensive, human-centered process, selecting them into our Ashoka global, trust-based fellowship of peers.
The process of selection is a transformative and enlightening experience. Candidates articulate their innovations, and how they have the potential to change sector-wide systems. They scrutinize their strategies and methods, and reflect on how they engage as individuals and leaders in today’s world. The selection process is not simply a means to an end, but rather generates robust discussion, sharpens ideas, and gives room for a journey of self discovery and growth.
The selection process phases are:
- Nomination: Ashoka receives nominations from staff, volunteers, partners, Ashoka Fellows, and nominators based on the five criteria for Ashoka Fellowship. While Ashoka’s primary source for nominations is through our network of volunteer nominators, we also welcome self-nominations from social entrepreneurs who believe they meet Ashoka’s criteria.
- First opinion: The local Ashoka venture team reviews the nominations to identify a key social innovation. In order to ensure that the candidate is a good fit for the Ashoka criteria, they conduct site visits and meet with the candidate, as well as review their work with other experts in the field.
- Second opinion: A senior Ashoka representative with extensive experience in the field of social entrepreneurship reviews the work of the candidate with the local venture team. The second opinion interviewer will always come from a different continent from the candidate so that they can bring objectivity to the process and assess the potential of the idea to be applied elsewhere. The second opinion interviewer will have an in-depth conversation about the innovation of the idea, their potential for sector-wide system change, as well as the candidate’s fit for the Ashoka criteria.
- Panel: In addition, three to four leading social and business entrepreneurs from the same country/region interview the candidate. These entrepreneurs are able to assess the innovation and its potential impact in the local context. The panel then convenes as a group and, facilitated by the second opinion interviewer, decides by consensus whether they recommend that the Ashoka board elect this candidate as an Ashoka Fellow.
- Board review: Ashoka’s board of directors review the candidate’s case in light of the observations made by the local Venture team, second opinion interviewer, and panelists. After assessing the candidate’s fit to the criteria and their alignment with Ashoka’s mission, they make a final decision about selecting the candidate.
"In 2008, I became an Ashoka Fellow. I was thrilled by this opportunity to meet amazing people, go to fantastic places, and learn about innovative and new ideas. But what I could never have known then and am only beginning to grasp now . . . is the amount of growth I would experience as a person, leader, and changemaker. Ashoka’s commitment to and belief in me and the power I—one person—can bring to the world, has been truly transformative and life changing. I am not at all surprised that Girls on the Run has grown significantly over the last four years . . . and that our growth has been in parallel with the confidence I have found using words like ‘change the world,’ ‘transformation,’ and ‘taking positive risks.’ This is the language of Ashoka . . . and the world in which I now joyfully find myself living everyday.”
– Molly Barker, Girls on the Run, USA. Ashoka Fellow since 2008
The Ashoka Fellowship
For more than 35 years, Ashoka has built and nurtured the largest network of leading social entrepreneurs in the world. After a rigorous selection process, they are introduced to a life-long fellowship, where every member is committed to championing new patterns of social good. We encourage Ashoka Fellows to take ownership of the network and we partner with them to co-create Ashoka’s vision of an Everyone a Changemaker world.
We understand the individual needs of social entrepreneurs vary depending on the stage of their work. Once selected, each Ashoka Fellow embarks on a tailored timeline of investments and support over their lifetime. We make sure that the Ashoka brand, the engagements we curate and facilitate, and the connections we open are valuable to each Fellow. We invite Fellows to make the most of the network with those interactions that will increase their chances of deepening their social impact. Some of the support Fellows will enjoy include:
- A tailored stipend for up to three years, if needed, for the Fellow to dedicate themselves full time to the advancement of the idea
- Customized engagement opportunities that accelerate their impact
- Increased visibility
- A global community of peers
Fellows have said that the Ashoka Fellowship gives them an identity, a community, and the network to do more.
“Having identified myself as a social entrepreneur was truly significant. It defined my role and gave me the security of belonging to a network of people with similar abilities and vocations.”
– Ximena Abogabir, Casa de la Paz, Chile. Ashoka Fellow since 1995