How Can Social Innovators Design their Venture for the Highest Level of Impact?

‘Go beyond making the problem go away for some people; instead, build a solution through which the problem becomes irrelevant’ has been the guiding adage for how Ashoka selects Fellows. We have always focused on finding people who we call “systems-changing social entrepreneurs.” Bill Drayton’s most famous quote still rings true in this way: We know it’s time to move beyond the “teach a man to fish” model, and find those who will “reinvent the entire fishing industry.”  

For more than 30 years we’ve supported social innovators doing just that. They’ve engineered concepts like banking for the poor, “Encore Careers,” and a Nobel-caliber prize for young changemakers. Meanwhile, the citizen sector has grown increasingly adept at navigating the tricky waters of social impact, bringing a voice of legitimacy to this work. Ashoka Fellow Jeff Edmondson of StriveTogether is pioneering shared impact measurement that is applied across different local actors, which keeps community efforts aligned and mutually accountable for their impact.

We have now noticed an important trend emerging from across the Ashoka Fellowship: the most impactful social entrepreneurs are successfully changing the way people view their very roles in society. The social entrepreneur of the 21stcentury is not a lone hero; she is a master activator. Her work is a massive invitation for others to jump in and contribute to positive change, and people are saying yes.

Getting people to see their place on a changemaking path is a difficult task, and the social entrepreneurs who can do this are artists in their craft. 

From creating “more recess” to teaching young people the skills they need to thrive

When Ashoka Fellow Jill Vialet founded Playworks in 1996, she was hell-bent on securing the sanctity of recess in the American school day. Twenty years later, Playworks has shifted away from merely “making more recess” – Jill is proving that we can use recess to teach young people the skills they need to thrive. Along the way, she’s activated a national network of volunteer Playworks coaches – and more importantly, she’s brought the best out of 250,000 children through values-infused playtime.

Slowly, a critical mass of people took on Playworks’ new way of thinking about recess as a way to activate the inherent values and leadership in our youngest generation. Jill is one example from a quickly growing community of social entrepreneurs who are achieving similar mindset shifts in their own fields. Their impact reaches a level beyond the familiar metrics of “children served” or “improved baseline scores” – these entrepreneurs are effectively getting people to reframe the way the world works, and to see that they have a key role to play as individuals in making this reframing a reality. Ashoka is just beginning to distill the learning about how to achieve this level of impact, but there are some best practices that this particular breed of social entrepreneur often exhibits. 

Reimagining collaboration in research through open-source engagement across sectors and institutions

For example, Dr. Stephen Friend, while working as a physician and scientist, saw firsthand the lack of avenues or incentives for biomedical researchers to collaborate - and the loss of knowledge and efficiency that resulted. So Friend, in true “systems change” form, founded Biosage Networks in 2009 as an open-source technology platform where scientists can share, analyze, and reuse data from across sectors and institutions. Researchers can use Biosage to collaborate in cutting-edge, large-scale research and share in each other’s successes.

Friend, however, isn’t just talking about an open source platform. Rather he talks about the changing face of healthcare, and how open science will change the role of both researchers and the “researched.’ “In a traditional clinical study, you’d be thrilled to find 500 research ‘subjects’,” says Friend, “but imagine what is possible when you can quickly and reliably activate 20,000 research partners.” When research is seen as an open, collaborative project, everyone with a body has insight to share - everyone is a player in the game that will move us all toward discoveries in healthcare.

A justice system with changemakers and their communities at the helm of the defense

Ashoka Fellow Raj Jayadev is another entrepreneur who is redefining the role of the expert in the criminal justice reform movement through participatory justice: Rather than leaving cases in the hands of the court system, accused persons’ loved ones become extensions of the legal defense team. While these community members scour police reports, create mitigation packets, and sit in the courtroom during trials--a profound transformation also takes place in the individuals themselves. Jayadev says: “For the person who once felt overwhelmed by a court system, it seems that they too have the power to make change in that very system.”

Raj is demonstrating that the real criminal justice movement, is bigger than police accountability. It’s concerned about a justice system that is largely shielded from the public eye, and the people standing in line at American courthouses are best-equipped to transform it. As soon as they begin to understand that shift, the engagement between local government and communities will begin to look a lot different.

“Mindset-shifting social entrepreneurs” like Jill, Stephen, and Raj not only get people to see a problem differently, but they are also changing how “normal” people understand their role in solving it. It’s a tall order with some unavoidable, ominous obstacles; but when people start seeing the ways in which they can be players in the game – not beneficiaries of a solution – it’s an irreversible shift in thinking about social change, and one with exponentially bigger social impact.

Entrepreneurs like Jill, Stephen, and Raj are pioneering ways that allow all of us to reconsider what the highest level of social impact means, and how to design for models that will recruit “normal” citizens to become active changemakers. In a world where collaboration is literally at our fingertips, and where the expert is constantly being redefined, so shall it be with social impact. As the field continues to evolve, we’re betting that “mindset shift” is the next frontier of social impact - and these folks are paving the way.

Editor's Note: This article was written by Brittany Koteles of AshokaUS and Sachin Malhan of Ashoka Changemakers who will take part in two SXSW sessions To Hell With Good Intentions, Part I and Part II. on March 17. Geoff Zimmerman of StriveTogether will be apart of the first session while Raj, Stephen, and Jill will all be sharing their experiences in the second session.