Stories

Henry De Sio describes the key to success in an era of explosive social change

Dener’s determination is common across all Ashoka Fellows and is rooted in their resolution to never accept the injustices or social and environmental problems that their countries face, no matter how large. Indeed, these social entrepreneurs will not stop until they have made a significant dent in resolving them. In wildlife conservation in particular, their drive is critical, because results are not immediate. Ashoka Fellow Clóvis Borges from Brazil has been working since the 1980s for the protection of the red tailed parrot -- which thanks to his efforts has gone from being a ‘vulnerable’ species to an ‘almost endangered’ species. His organization, Wildlife Research and Environmental Education Society (SPVS for its acronym in Portuguese), has worked for the protection of biodiversity in the southwest region of Brazil since the early 1980s. Initially, SPVS focused on supporting the local environmental organizations and engaging them into a network so that they could integrate efforts and influence public policy -- in effect, professionalizing the environmental sector in the region. The Climate Observatory - one of the organizations that SPVS created - is today one of the major organizations in the region working with the local governments on policy changes. Ashoka Fellow Clovis Borges has used artificial nests to increase the reproduction of the red tailed parrot in the northern coast of the Parana state and the southern coast of Sao Paulo - the only habitat of the red tailed parrot in the world. In the past three decades SPVS went on to pioneer other conservation mechanisms, including income-generating models for local communities, payment for conservation services model to locals, private natural reserves, and integration of landowners of urban areas containing native vegetation. One of SPVS’ latest innovations is the LIFE (Lasting Initiative for Earth) certification, which seeks to incorporate biodiversity conservation into the practices of businesses through voluntary conservation actions. The certification is unique in the world in that it makes recommendations of conservation activities that generate impact that is directly proportional to the negative footprint that a company makes. Five companies have been certified in Brazil, including O Boticario, the second biggest cosmetic company in Brazil, and the initiative is now replicating to Paraguay. According to SPVS, the potential of the certification is huge, given that 40% of the global economy is based on products sourced from biodiversity or its ecological processes.
Anshul Tewari has his finger on the pulse of young India as the founder of India’s largest youth-based media platform, Youth Ki Awaaz (YKA). At any point, he can give the current view on what young Indians think about issues like gender equality, caste discrimination, or rapid urbanization. Tewari founded YKA when he was 17 with the aim of creating a space where young people could write and speak about issues that were important to them. A decade into the journey, YKA is India’s largest, locally-grown citizen media platform with more than four million readers every month, and thousands of citizen scribes writing on topics varying from politics to culture to the state of the economy. Most crucially, YKA isn’t just another user-content generation website, but a dynamic and live multi-media platform that holds the most significant conversations that young people in India want to have. YKA runs campaigns on issues of national importance. The ones that have found most resonance are its “Campus Watch” stories, a mouthpiece for students across India to highlight transgressions and injustices on their college campuses.  In 2015, the Pinjra Tod (or “Break the Cage”) campaign, led by female students from Delhi University, leveraged the YKA platform to demand that the curfew for women’s hostels be relaxed.  YKA provided an early and crucial platform to facilitate this conversation about women’s safety and limits to their freedom. With this springboard, young women spear-headed this campaign across the country. They drew the attention of major women’s rights groups and the State Commissions for Women, which directed college authorities to reduce curfews and establish a more gender-equal environment on campus. These wins are now commonplace for YKA and its readership. But ten years ago, when Tewari was still a teenager and just getting started, this kind of keen and impactful local reporting was missing. The more he read mainstream news, the more he realized what a huge gap he had tapped into. Anshul Tewari The perspective of youth was largely missing from the news, and information flowed to them instead of both ways. As this was dawning on Tewari, so was the Internet revolution in India. With prodding from brother, he started a blog in school. While his family had always encouraged sharing of opinions and had an avid interest in current affairs, the Internet’s power to connect with others and spread ideas unleashed Tewari’s inner changemaker. But he was dismayed that his enthusiasm and expression for discussion seemed lacking among his peers. Cultural taboos imposed on young people surrounding discussions about sexuality, discrimination, and other important social issues hindered open dialogue. “There was a culture of silence pushing an entire generation away from changemaking,” Tewari said. Tewari developed YKA in high school and then continued building the platform as a student of journalism in college. There, he connected with classmates who shared his interests in social media and dialogue promotion, and he formed a small team of volunteers and content creators who helped YKA get off the ground. Soon, YKA had a devoted support network of 15 volunteers editing user-generated content and producing stories for readers. By his early 20s, Tewari was devoting most of his time to scaling up YKA. He sought to develop a financially sustainable strategy to scale up the organization, while also preserving its mission of sharing opinions and facilitating dialogue. He knew that opening up the platform to advertisers would open the door to very same cultural biases and discriminatory practices that YKA sought to erase. For example, many ads in the region portray pale-skinned models as the go-to standard for beauty, whereas YKA’s writers wrote extensively on the virtues of loving one’s own natural skin color. Instead, Tewari created a dynamic business model that generates revenue through offline events and non-profit sponsorship. This strategy enabled him to scale up the platform as a business while retaining its social ethos. Today, at the age of 26, Tewari — now an Ashoka Fellow — runs a flourishing media platform with more than 30 full-time staff members. He recognizes that his parents grew up in a fundamentally different reality than his own; youth can no longer ignore the taboo topics the previous generation avoided. He believes that younger generations need to own societal issues previous generations created, resist complacency, and start developing empathy. “If you are not empathic, then you will not be able to understand what someone who is facing discrimination or marginalized is going through,” Tewari said. “Without empathy, society will not stop discriminating against marginalized people.”
Why don’t great ideas that are useful and working effectively to solve some of the most pressing social challenges, “travel” as well as business ideas do? Why aren’t they able to scale to solve similar social challenges happening in other parts of the world? What is preventing our Ashoka fellows from scaling their work better and faster? With this question in mind, in 2009 we launched the Ashoka Globalizer Program to find the answer and potential solutions. The first thing we quickly understood is that scaling social ideas didn´t follow the “market incentives and mechanisms” that business ideas do. When you scale a business idea, the potential of bigger monetary gains offset the problems and risks. However, when scaling a social idea, what you get is typically larger challenges and problems (more funding is needed, more people to support and help, etc) The other thing that we soon realized is that the citizen sector was extrapolating the experiences and lessons learned from the business sector, which, as explained above, has very different market forces. We studied many frustrated attempts to scale social programs and concluded that in many occasions this failure could be traced to the over-reliance on the conventional wisdom of the business sector, in which ‘scaling up’ typically focuses on increasing the size of an organization. It became very clear to all of us that we needed to explore this idea of scaling social impact without necessarily increasing the size of the organization behind it. An organization doesn´t have more impact the bigger it becomes, quite the opposite… and this became our mantra and our working hypothesis. We soon found out that there were other academics that had arrived to the same conclusion – Indeed, Richard Bradach had written: “finding ways to scale impact without scaling the size of an organization is the new frontier for work in our field[1].”   When Valid Nutrition tried to scale… Dr. Steve Collins, the founder of Valid Nutrition, is one such social entrepreneur who has been frustrated by attempts to adapt traditional business models for scaling his impact. Several years ago, Steve revolutionized the treatment of Severe Acute Malnutrition by developing a new method involving individual portions of “ready to use therapeutic food” administered directly by community members. This approach eliminated long trips to over-crowded inpatient treatment centers, reduced contamination risks, and ultimately cut death rates five-fold while dramatically increasing coverage[2]. Based on these results, and the knowledge that demand for treatment still far outstrips supply, Valid Nutrition felt a burning obligation to extend the impact of its work as widely as possible. Making use of the corporate expansion model prevalent in this industry, and eager to maintain tight control over quality, they built a factory, hired a distribution team, and established an entire supply chain under direct Valid Nutrition management. Very quickly, however, this approach encountered problems: revenue growth did not keep pace with costs, and the task of directly managing so many processes overwhelmed Valid Nutrition’s core team. Furthermore, Steve’s team was frustrated that their highly centralized organizational model failed to adequately promote local economic autonomy and empowerment – a core value of their community-based care ideal. Steve had bumped into one of the central difficulties in scaling social impact: as you serve increasing numbers, the complexity of your work increases faster than your organization’s ability to manage it. Valid Nutrition is certainly not the only social organization to have been stymied by attempts to scale impact by growing the organization. Indeed, a consensus is emerging: social entrepreneurs who wish to effectively ‘scale up’ must learn to transition “from an enterprise to an ecosystem“[3]. This transition entails isolating the key values at the absolute core of his mission and actively seeking out other actors who could integrate these values into their own activities.   Scaling Streetfootballworld by unleashing a network Juergen Griesbeck, the founder of Streetfootballworld, has undergone a similar shift in focus during his scaling journey. Juergen’s vision is to connect all organizations around the world using football (soccer) as a tool for development. Through these connections, organizations refine and supplement their learn c programming with the best practices of others, collaborate on shared projects, and tap into investors they could not access individually. Originally, Streetfootballworld set out to function as the central connecting point facilitating all major activity among all members of its network. However, this meant it had to grow in size along with the network’s growth, which seemed unrelated to the impact it wanted to have. So Juergen decided to decouple the size of the network from the size of its core by empowering network members to transact and collaborate directly amongst themselves. He has since shifted focus to pioneering new ways for network members to cultivate their own local ecosystems, learn directly from each other, and jointly pursue shared funding and program goals. Now, Juergen is adamant: “this network approach is part of the impact.” Thankfully for Steve, Juergen, and the growing ranks of social entrepreneurs wishing to scale their impact without necessarily growing their organizations, a robust body of scholarly work has begun to emerge around models and strategies to accomplish this. Indeed, from Dees’ early elaboration of the multiple “pathways to scale” beyond simple branching and franchises[4], to Bradach’s recent call for creating “100x the results with 2x the organization”[5], there has been significant progress. Yet, Ashoka Fellows have been calling for scaling guidance with a more directly problem-solving orientation, and to learn firsthand from the struggles and triumphs of their peers who have already walked the path.   Supporting scaling through the Ashoka Globalizer Five years ago, acting on the need for firsthand guidance on scaling up, Ashoka created its Globalizer program. Our mission was to identify Ashoka Fellows, such as Steve Collins and Juergen Griesbeck, who could be role models and thought leaders in this area, bring them together with global business entrepreneurs who have mastered the old scaling strategies, and jointly develop practical wisdom on scaling strategies explicitly created for the citizen sector. These social and business entrepreneurs constitute the Globalizer’s community of practice. They cut across all thematic/issue areas in both sectors, and come together at Globalizer Summit events around the world. Once there, they engage in structured interactions in order to share and develop knowledge around emerging scaling pathways, exchange practical advice to support each others’ endeavors, and distill their stories to share with the sector as a whole. Prior to each Summit, participants spend several months preparing with teams of advisors from Ashoka and our business sector partners, working to isolate or “unbundle” the core elements within their theory of change and refine strategies for scaling these up. In the process of bringing these social entrepreneurs together and pushing them forward, we have developed practical insights.   LESSONS for scaling strategies Through the Globalizer Summits and a host of global conversations, the central tenet of scaling for impact has been clear: let loose a well-defined idea to create a movement or mission-aligned ecosystem, rather than only growing the organization behind it. Two strategic imperatives have shone through: liberate the core, and become a magnet. To really help an idea travel, social entrepreneurs must return to the essence of why they started their work. Too often their organizations have grown opportunistically – expanding and evolving based on funding or connections available at a given time, rather than with a clear focus on their original mission and full market potential. As one Globalizer participant put it, “I started the organization to work on a problem. Somewhere along the line, building the organization became larger than the mission. This was hard to get out from.” As the Globalizer community explored mechanisms to extend social impact beyond the organization, two approaches stood out. These are not new pathways per se but ones where the key principles needed for adoption and widespread use have not yet been developed adequately. They are Open Source Changemaking Smart Networks We believe that both pathways have the potential to strongly impact the way social entrepreneurs scale up in the future. 1) Open Source Changemaking – In a world of constant change and multiplying problems, both working behind closed doors as well as leadership by an indispensable individual are becoming relics of the past. We must open up opportunities to increasing numbers of people to collaborate together for a common purpose – the heart of all social changemaking. The open source model is a powerful way to do this because it taps into people’s natural motivation. A great example of this approach can be found in the well-known story of Ashoka Fellow Darrel Hammond’s KaBOOM! – the organization that builds playgrounds in low-income communities across the United States with the goal of giving every child a safe space to play within walking distance of their home. When KaBOOM made the decision to open-source its playground model, it found that in a single year (2009), other people built as many playgrounds as KaBOOM! itself had built in the previous 14 years[6]. Indeed, today “local communities build 10 KaBOOM!-influenced playgrounds for each one KaBOOM! builds itself.“ 2) Smart Networks: when you leverage or collaborate across networks in ways that are greater than the sum of their parts – can help us achieve the scale we need. The 21st century will be marked by integrated thinking, interdependent action, and international systems change. In a world where it is neither feasible (nor even, perhaps, desirable) for a single person, organization or group to achieve large-scale complex social change alone, what will be required is tapping the power of interconnecting networks to accomplish lasting results. Smart Networks require generous sharing to provide value to others, which makes these networks powerful, cost-effective tools to increase access to information, financing and other resources. For instance, Globalizer Fellow from South Africa Kovin Naidoo once spent a large amount of time and organizational energy leading a coalition that was instrumental in sealing a very large grant for substantial work across South Africa – but his organization, the International Centre for Eyecare Education, didn’t receive any of the funds. However, other members of the coalition later approached them to carry out significant aspects of the work, and they ended up getting a better outcome than if they were one of the initial grantees. Given the nascency of attention to both open source changemaking and smart networking as key pathways to scaling social impact, it’s not hard to foresee a raft of impending challenges. For instance, how do social entrepreneurs learn to emotionally let go of their programs to the extent that others can truly take it in new and unforeseen directions? How can they operate effectively in a world conditioned to pursue isolated impact, often driven by isolated investing from a donor community that does not yet recognize that large-scale success will only come from collaboration? And if success doesn’t conform to our standard modes of measurement and resource allocation, how will organizations justify spending resources on these new pathways? These are the types of challenges all innovators are facing and, thus, what the next series of scaling innovations will most likely address. It is not going to be an easy change. But social entrepreneurs have always been characterized by the ability to see over the horizon, to envision a new possibility such as the fact that poor people might be willing and able to pay back micro-loans. So if anyone can lead this type of change, it is the likes of Steve Collins and Juergen Griesbeck and the dozens of other social entrepreneurs who have seen beyond the horizon and are quietly shaping new pathways to scale their vision. And, in doing so, they are ensuring that the best ideas reach their full potential: solving intractable social problems and improving countless lives around the world. To find out more, stay tuned! ____________ [1] Bradach, J. 2010. Scaling Impact: How to Get 100x the Results with 2x the Organization. Stanford Social Innovation Review 6(3): 27-28 [2] Bahwere et al. 2006. Community-based Therapeutic Care (CTC): A Field Manual. First edition, Valid International, Oxford, UK. [3] Elkington J, Hartigan P. 2008. The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets that Change the World. Harvard Business School Press Books: Cambridge, MA. [4] Dees, J.G., Anderson, B.B., & Wei-Skillern, J. 2004. [5] Bradach, J. 2010. [6] McLeod Grant, H and Fulton, K. Breaking New Ground: Using the Internet to Scale. A Case Study of KaBOOM! The Monitor Institute.
The world feels more fractious with every passing day. People who are different from each other, or who hold different points of view, struggle to bridge differences. Since January 2017, The People’s Supper project has been tackling this disconnect head on by inviting people, who often have never met, to sit at the same table and share their stories. At more than 200 dinner tables across the United States, people break out of their echo chambers and stop seeing each other as monoliths: one-sided stereotypes that can be reduced to a single word or phrase. Instead, they come to see each other has rich, complex humans, according to Ashoka Fellow Lennon Flowers, co-founder and executive director of The Dinner Party, one of the three organizations that have collaborated to create The People’s Supper. [FELLOW=15957] Lennon combined forces to create The Dinner Party with two other Ashoka Fellows Emily May (co-founder of Hollaback!, working to end sexual, gender-based, and prejudiced-motivated harassment online and in public spaces), and Jennifer Bailey (founder of Faith Matters Network, a people of color-led collective equipping faith leaders with tools to build healthy, equitable communities) to build bridges to make the shift from a place “where people began to assume the worst rather than the best of one another.” “This isn’t about a political party, or what is or isn’t happening in Washington,” Lennon said. “Rather, it was borne out of post-election ruptures at the family Thanksgiving table, and in communities where people began to assume the worst rather than the best in one other." “We Need a Way to Talk Openly” The People's Supper started as an experiment: the goal was to get people to sit down at 100 dinners during the first 100 days of the new presidential administration in Washington, D.C. “It seemed impossible, but we ended up doing 140 dinners,” Lennon said. “Since then, we’ve hosted over 200 dinners across the country. Due to demand and interest, we’re keeping the conversation going over the next year, at least.” “Lacking relationships across lines of difference, we reduce each other to caricatures and are led to believe our worst stereotypes," Lennon said. "Correcting that, we realized, could not be done with op-eds, or with arguments. We needed a way to talk openly about the kinds of experiences all of us share: the stories of grief and vulnerability and heartache — and joy and hope, too — that change the way we see ourselves and one another.” The People’s Supper “is designed to get people to sit down with one another across political views, across identities, and fully see and hear one another – to believe in and to see each other’s humanity,” adds Emily May. [FELLOW=12867] Lennon brought her four years of experience developing a network of dinner parties that create a space for people who are grieving over a loss. These dinners are a way to connect with others to share experiences of grief in a natural and comfortable way while building a community of friends. It Started with a Late Night Conversation About Grief Lennon’s mother was diagnosed with cancer when Lennon was a high school senior and she died of stage four cancer when Lennon was finishing her last year of college. Lennon had moved from the East Coast to Los Angeles and found “I had no vocabulary to talk about my mom, the life she lived, how it influenced the person I became, and how her absence complicated my family story. I didn’t know how to bring it into a conversation without scaring off new friends.” Things changed when her friend Carla Fernandez told her over coffee that her that her father had passed away six months before. Lennon did not mention her mother at time, not wanting to make Fernandez “uncomfortable with my life.” But then Fernandez invited Lennon for dinner one night and they talked until 2 a.m. It was the first Dinner Party. “What we found in that kind of space was that we could be in a community where you didn’t have to hide – you didn’t have to make a part of your life or story off-limits, or feel cagey about sharing. As relationships grew, it didn’t mean we talked about grief and loss specifically every time or in every moment. But you could talk about times when it was triggered by something, or you just happened to be having a hard day,” Lennon said. “It became a vehicle for processing all of that in a way that didn't feel embarrassing. It was simple but beautiful. It’s about turning loss from a conversation-killer into a conversation-starter and taking what are otherwise isolating experiences and turning them into profound sources of empathy and connectivity. “Through, intimate, peer-driven dinner parties, we work to turn our most isolating experiences into sources of rich community, empathy, and meaningful conversation. As cagey and self-conscious as we are about those stories, when we share, it is an invitation to others to share theirs.” Figuring It Out: What is a Dinner Party? Lennon used money she received from her mother’s life insurance to pay her rent and “dove in,” launching an Indigogo campaign to raise funds for initial Dinner Party trainings and staff retreats. By co-founding The Dinner Party with Fernandez, they found a way “to replicate the experience we had had around that first table, without our having to be in the room or resorting to formulaic conversation, or the same institutional feel that compelled us to create The Dinner Party in the first place.” What had begun as a casual gathering of friends became a quest to reimagine and reinvent "grief support," and the very way we conceive of and talk about loss. [FELLOW=15991] The Dinner Party has grown from a couple of dozen people at the end of 2013 to 600 dinner parties in 114 U.S. cities and more than 150 tables worldwide that has connected more than 4,000 one-time strangers to one another. “Our first step was to figure out what a dinner party is: everything from tips and tricks to breaking the ice, to the essential ingredients of open, honest, bullshit-free conversation among peers," Lennon said. "We developed a Host Guidebook and made it immediately available for download, encouraging anyone to sit down with people they know and talk about things they normally don’t." “The organic quality behind The Dinner Party and our evolution thus far has been key to our success,” Lennon adds. “It’s provided us with the agility to act quickly and a grassroots feel that is attractive to a generation wary of institutions and hypersensitive to authenticity. You would expect growth to produce a decline in quality, but we have witnessed the opposite: people believed more in the idea and were willing to invest more in it.” Recently, The Dinner Party has been experimenting with an initiative to help workplace managers hold a place for employees who are grieving from a loss called The Dinner Party at Work. “In the immediate months following a loss, we are informed very profoundly — not just by how your community showed up or didn’t — but by how your workplace responded. The feedback we’ve consistently received is that loss, and life afterwards, is indeed deeply affects organizational culture and the bottom line, and that no one feels equipped to handle it. “Nobody wants to be a terrible friend colleague or manager. The problem is an absence of knowing how to have these kind of conversations. We think we live in a grief-phobic society, but I don’t actually think that. It's just that with grief we are afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing, so we don’t say anything at all.” It’s Not Solving for Grief – Isolation is the Key As the dinner parties multiplied, Lennon began to see them “not exclusively as a vehicle for connecting around grief from death or loss, but for taking sources of struggle that are shared experiences and turning them into experiences of connectivity. It didn’t take us long to realize that our work isn’t really about grief – the thing we were solving for wasn't grief, because you can't solve grief and you shouldn’t want to. It's not a thing to be fixed but to be held. The thing to fix is isolation – because of the way we silence ourselves: whatever you feel, you feel alone – you should be feeling or doing something else. It’s the rupturing of relationships that undergird every other problem in the world.” “That’s where we can help stage an intervention and connect people around shared experiences – so we water the seeds of resilience that live inside everything.” The Dinner Party became a way to do bridge building, not just across political differences but across lines of difference so that people might stop making assumptions based on a label or a stereotype that they placed on each other. “We were thinking about this for a long time, and then the elections happened,” Lennon said.” In the wake of last year’s divisive presidential campaign, The Dinner Party began trying to create healing spaces “to combat the hostility that permeates our present politics” so “we could build real trust and meaningful connection across lines of difference, be they political, cultural, racial, religious, or generational.” Following the election people expressed a hunger for ways to restore connections and heal from the divisive political campaign, and this propelled the demand for The People’s Supper. Self-Organizing to Meet a Growing Demand The demand was met because three Ashoka Fellows came together and pooled their organizations’ networks to spread the word and organize the dinners. “We envision a future in which other organizations and peer networks comprised of people with a shared experience — veterans’ groups, organizations serving the formerly incarcerated and their families, or support networks for survivors of domestic violence or sexual assault — can launch their own tables.” Lennon credits Ashoka and its network for having supported the three Ashoka Fellows that collaborated and built this movement: The Dinner Party, Hollaback, and the Faith Matters Network. These organizations “were borne of this network, and the way in which we are thinking was borne of this network,” she said." “From the outset, our end-goal was one of culture change. “Ashoka has been everything for me — an extraordinary laboratory of the world's best ideas and extraordinary people. They were people who recognized their own agency and that their role in the world was to give other people that agency so they could claim their power to move the world. They combined this with a deeply sophisticated ability to understand and diagnose problems.”

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