Ashoka is an international organisation that promotes social entrepreneurship, and the idea that “everyone can be a changemaker”. It was launched in 1980 in India by Bill Drayton, an American social entrepreneur who nailed the term “social entrepreneurship” in the 1970s and still chairs the organisation today. Since its inception, Ashoka has remained the largest network of social entrepreneurs across the world. It is now present in 70 countries, on all continents, and brings together over 3,000 “Fellows”, pioneers who contribute to the influence of social entrepreneurship worldwide. The aim of Ashoka? To help create a world where everyone is able to act rapidly and efficiently to address social issues. Its mission? To favour the growth of social entrepreneurship, which provides solutions to change the world on a large scale. All thanks to the “philanthropic capital-risk” approach: investing in social businesses that are both innovative and durable. Arnaud Mourot is the director of the French section of Ashoka, and is also responsible for its development in Belgium and Switzerland. We asked him a few questions about the achievements and future goals of social entrepreneurship. The main thing to remember is that it just may change the world.
How does Ashoka work? How do you identify the projects you support?
First, we have a network of trained prescribers, everywhere in France and in the world, who know our five main criteria: Innovation, Creativity, Entrepreneurial qualities, Potential social impact and Ethics. These prescribers act as a first “filter” and bring us the projects that they think we would be interested in. Then, if we also consider that the project matches our criteria, we enter a 6- to 12-month phase during which we analyse the project, meet the entrepreneurs and call on expertise from within Ashoka at international and local levels as well as our board, independent experts, etc. We need to be extremely rigorous because the leaders of the projects we select are destined to be Ashoka “Fellows” for years, sometimes decades. So we had better believe in the project and enjoy working with those responsible for it!
How does Ashoka help projects to develop?
We help them in three different ways: with money, with professional coaching and help, and with our networks. The money part is simple: thanks to the companies, foundations and entrepreneurs that fund Ashoka, we provide each of the fellows with a 2- to 4-year grant, so that they can dedicate themselves entirely to their project. For the coaching part, we mobilize our strategic and technical partners to give them advice in many fields, ranging from law to accounting or communication. Finally, the entrepreneurs benefit from our networks, on two levels: first, they belong to the Fellows’ Network, made up of peer entrepreneurs just like them; and secondly we invite them to meet business people who can mentor their project.
You mentioned “potential social impact” as one of your criteria. How do you measure that?
We regularly conduct studies, five years after the project has been selected by Ashoka, and ten years after too. We measure a range of elements, such as the survival rate (after ten years, 90% of projects are still up and running), or whether the idea has been copied or not. This, in particular, helps us evaluate whether the project comes up with solutions that are easily replicable and can be applied to similar situations elsewhere. We also investigate the influence on public policies. The number of beneficiaries each project has is also important, of course, but it is not our main focus: we are looking for people who are really transforming the system, and these people do not necessarily operate in big structures that reach large numbers of people – not initially at least. In France, for instance, we recently conducted a study with McKinsey on the reduction of public costs made thanks to ten social entrepreneurs, in the fields of health, housing, debt reduction and return to employment: it amounts to 60 billion euros over 10 years!
To what extent do you focus on the economic viability of the projects Ashoka supports?
More than viability, what is most important is plain durability. In some fields, such as education, there are just no business models. So what we care about is how entrepreneurs, even without a business model, go about creating the conditions which will ensure their own survival: what resources they find, and how.
What conclusions can you draw from recent decades, for Ashoka as well as for social entrepreneurship in general?
Well, we are glad to have invented the term “social entrepreneurship”, 30 years ago. Almost seven years ago, we imported the idea into France, and ever since, we have been lucky enough to see the sector grow. It is now experiencing a boom, attracting interest from politicians, the business community, entrepreneurs and society as a whole. In that respect, I feel that our “incubating job” is done.
And what do you see ahead?
The next step is definitely to ensure better convergence between “social” and “business”. It is crucial that durable synergies are built: today, these actors do not really know how to work together. Sometimes it happens that a local community partners up with a social entrepreneur in a given situation, but this is not enough. What we need is to widen this effort, to create ecosystems in which different actors, with different interests, can team up to pursue a common goal. We need to invent a new paradigm for collaboration. It is the only way we will be able to solve problems – generally public issues – on a much wider scale. It is what we call the Hybrid Value Chain: a combination of the values of social entrepreneurs and those of private corporate companies, to serve even more people and be more efficient than the sum of what each of the actors could have achieved alone.
Secondly, we must continuously strive to influence individuals into becoming changemakers themselves. Change can come from businesses and entrepreneurs, but societal issues concern everyone, and everyone must feel that they have a role to play, that they can get involved. We are going to launch a series of projects targeting kids and young people, for instance, but also executives. One does not necessarily need to be a social entrepreneur to be a changemaker: within your own organisation there are many things you can do to drive change. This is what Ashoka 3.0 will be like: a focus on how both society and citizens can address the challenges that we collectively face.
Ashoka in France, Belgium and Switzerland
There are 40 “Fellows” in these three countries. Their projects cover a wide range of actions, in the fields of insertion & economic development, health, education, the fight against exclusion and the environment. Among the Fellows, we find French philosopher Pierre Rabhi with his work on agro-ecology, and Marie Trellu-Kane, who down to Earth met in April. Other projects include helping entrepreneurs to set up their businesses (Boutiques de Gestion), granting democratic access to high-quality childcare (Môm’artre), testing new personalised programs for the treatment of cancer (Ressource) or making new technologies available to deaf people to help them communicate (Websourd).
In March 2012, McKinsey led a study on 10 of these projects for Ashoka, acknowledging and measuring their impact in terms of “economic profit generated for the whole of society”.