Being a Changemaker in a Changing World

Submitted by: John Converse Townsend on 12/21/11

Editor's note: This post was written by Theodora Higginson, Associate, Ashoka

What does it mean to have the world’s sixteenth largest economy (which is growing rapidly), a population where 60 percent of people are under the age of 30, and an undeveloped citizen sector? For Turkey, it means having a huge potential for citizen- and youth-led social change.

For the first time, many citizen sector organizations and social entrepreneurs in Turkey are being encouraged by the government and trusted by society. “In recent years, a rising number of world-class Turkish social entrepreneurs, educational institutes, foundations, socially responsible companies, and conscious business entrepreneurs have started to play an active role in developing and spreading astonishing social innovations,” said Matthias Scheffelmeier from Ashoka Europe, responsible for Turkey. “The country definitely has the potential to become a powerful regional hub for innovative ideas.”

At a recent panel hosted by Columbia Business School, Scheffelmeier highlighted the progress of social entrepreneurs in Turkey who are transforming their country into a regional platform for social innovation. Scheffelmeier has been for the past year a driving force behind in the search, selection, and support of the country’s leading social entrepreneurs.

One of these entrepreneurs, Nasuh Mahruki, was on hand to discuss his experience as founder of AKUT, a volunteer search and rescue network that has been named one of Turkey’s most trusted organizations. An Ashoka Fellow since 2004, Mahruki is the first Turk and first Muslim to climb Mount Everest; he channeled his passion for the outdoors and profession as a mountain climber into his platform for social change. AKUT enables ordinary citizens to take ownership of disaster recovery by giving them first-aid and trauma care training. The volunteers also help minimize crisis aftermath before it happens by increasing awareness of the dangers and providing emergency-preparation instructions.

AKUT’s teams have consistently provided rapid, organized responses to natural disasters both at home and internationally. They saved hundreds of lives in the Izmit earthquake in 1999, helped after the quake in Athens the same year, and sent medical support for victims of the Mozambique flood in 2000—just three outstanding examples of their many heroic efforts.

Ibrahim Betil, elected a Senior Fellow in 2004, also joined the panel to share his experience as founder of Community Volunteers Foundation (TOG), which empowers Turkey’s youth by putting them in charge of their own social initiatives—as well as involving them in TOG’s decision-making at a high level. Nearly 24,000 youth have taken this opportunity and run with it, collaborating on about 800 local, national, and international projects, including restoring schools in poor districts, and organizing training programs in democracy, human rights, and reproductive health. While spreading the impact of the projects themselves, TOG is also developing young, socially-minded leaders who will bring about a better future for Turkey; the organization awards over 600 university scholarships each year.

One girl in the audience, a senior at a college in the United States and looking ahead to her post-graduation future, asked what Turkish students can do to help their native country even if they don’t want to return there immediately after graduation. Betil told her that he trusts her intelligence and creativity to find her own solution, which he would do his best to support. The norm, he said, is for adults to impose their expectations on young people, and to teach them the existing systems. Instead, it is up to social entrepreneurs, young and old, to create their own systems.

These national heroes in Turkey gave the audience at Columbia Business School sound advice: Be fearless and transparent. Both emphasized the importance of fearless devotion to one’s cause, as well as organizational transparency, which are critical to earning the trust necessary for success as a social entrepreneur. That is what will change Turkey—and the world.