Social Innovation: Let's Redraw the Map

All America Map2

Geographic Breakdown of Ashoka Fellows in the US

All America Map2

(The majority of Ashoka's 200+ Fellows come from only four cities in the US - NYC, Boston, Washington, DC and San Francisco - and have similar demographic profiles.)

Ashoka US Partnerships Director Michael Zakaras writes about Ashoka's realization of a need to broaden the diversity of our Fellowship, address organizational biases and encourage more diversity in the social sector in this Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) article "Let's Redraw the Map.

Read the whole article here, and get a glimpse of his insights below.


Part of the hidden magic of social entrepreneurship is how entrepreneurs recruit citizens across the world to step in and shape societies for the better. In a sense, they provide us with a blueprint for effective action when governments, the private sector or even philanthropists let us down. The more of them there are, the more blueprints we have, the faster we can make problems go away, and the more confident we become when we face the next problem. We tend to focus on the story of the individual hero battling the odds but overlook this more significant collective impact that social entrepreneurs have in building resilient communities.

A major promise of social entrepreneurship, therefore, is to help shape an America where problems do not outrun solutions – and where all of us can contribute to the greater good. When social entrepreneurs are present and supported, they have this catalytic effect, and it reaches into institutions too. Through them, local philanthropists begin to see the importance of investing in systemic solutions rather than treating symptoms year after year. Foundations are more likely to set aside higher-risk pools of funding to invest in what needs to be accomplished, not just what we know can be accomplished. Local corporations begin pushing themselves beyond innocuous CSR, and universities ask themselves how they can become the best for the world rather than the best in the world. The conversation about social change evolves from ‘doing good’ to something more urgent and more transformative.

But this promise falls short when it’s restricted to a few circles – when only the social entrepreneurs in NYC and Boston get noticed and uplifted. For those not on the social entrepreneur ‘circuit’, meanwhile, the feeling is of constantly swimming upstream, too often alone. Without a network of peers to reinforce their ideas, their ability to shape ‘Everyone A Changemaker’ communities is limited, let alone build thriving organizations or movements. They are the perpetual outliers. In this scenario, networks like Ashoka lose out too: Without these social entrepreneurs in our circles, we’re more likely to get stuck in the same conversations with the same people and overlook important social problems in the first place.

This is an opportunity.

The next chapter of social entrepreneurship in this country should focus on helping social entrepreneurship thrive everywhere. That means building vibrant local support networks so that an early-stage entrepreneur in Detroit is just as likely as one in San Francisco to get the critical boost she needs. And it means creating pathways for social entrepreneurs in every state to seamlessly connect to national and global networks. The result is better for everyone as creative new approaches are given visibility and added to our problem-solving palette. What you end up with is a culture of social innovation that has no distinct center but rather is characterized by a distributed dynamism.

There’s no one formula for how to do this. Many of the reasons our networks lack diversity are deep and structural and not anything we can change quickly. But some things we can do quickly, starting with reflecting on what our biases may be, pushing ourselves beyond our current circles, and committing to working collaboratively to take our field to its more mature, more impactful place.

Consider this an open invitation. 

This article was originally published on 7 September 2016
Related TopicsBusiness & Social Enterprise, Social enterprise, Human Rights & Equality, Gender equity, Racial equality, Social Entrepreneurship

Michael is the Strategy & Partnerships Director for Ashoka United States.

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