Bill Drayton is a pioneering force in the field of social entrepreneurship. He’s the founder and CEO of Ashoka: Innovators for the Public, which he launched in 1981 to find, nurture, and support social entrepreneurs. Over the last four decades, Ashoka’s community of social entrepreneurs and changemakers has grown into a global network of individuals that strive to solve some of society’s toughest challenges. Bill is a MacArthur Fellow and has received many awards for his contribution to social innovation and change.
Over the last 40 years, through your own work and that of Ashoka Fellows, you’ve had the privilege of seeing the world change. What is different about social entrepreneurship today versus when you set up Ashoka four decades ago?
Back when we got started in the 1980s, we had to invent words to describe the new world of social entrepreneurship whose birth we were helping. We were sitting at Nariman Point, in what was then called Bombay, and struggling with naming the idea. We first created the broader concept and name: changemaker. This was easy—just take the two strong verbs ‘change’ and ‘make’ and put them together. However, we needed a different phrase to describe the small number of changemakers who redefine or create society’s big systems. After some trial and error, we ultimately settled on ‘social entrepreneur’.
The word ‘entrepreneur’ tended to be synonymous with business, at least historically up to that point. However, around the late 1970s and early 1980s, the citizen sector was beginning to become entrepreneurial and competitive in the same way that business had been for several centuries. The citizen sector was also beginning to break free from being funded by, controlled by, and prohibited from being competitive by, the government. And India was one of the first places where a significant number of first-generation social entrepreneurs stood up and set out to change the world for good.
Today, the big difference is that the construct of social entrepreneur is part of everyday thinking and language. And just think about what that means. People can look at these entrepreneurs and think: If she can do this, and such work is practical, and she’s being respected for it, then that’s an opportunity for me; it could be an option for my life. So the first step was to introduce the construct of social entrepreneurship everywhere in the world. Social entrepreneurs are people who can change a major pattern or system of thinking and acting. They pull people together, multiply impact, strengthen an idea, and make it more viable and scalable.
The second construct is what we are working on now: Everyone a changemaker. You and I want everyone to have a good life. But one cannot have a good life if one cannot give. And to be able to give, one must be able to play in today’s everything-changing and everything-connected new (and only) reality. So, the biggest change is that we understand that consciously.
Very few people are going to change society’s big patterns. The difference between a social entrepreneur and a changemaker is that an entrepreneur changes major systems and/or frameworks of thinking on a large scale. But everybody can and has to be a changemaker. Saying that out loud and actually working on it is the second big change for us at Ashoka. The Ashoka Fellows remain critical to this new thinking and this work.
So, we have an open-source system to find the best big pattern-change ideas for good in the hands of the best social entrepreneurs. Nothing has changed about that. But with that we are also able to spot where there’s a whole group of new people and ideas coming up (a recent example is good tech and climate). In each such area, we then map and plot and then entrepreneur together to achieve maximum impact.
If you are a changemaker, there is no job shortage; indeed, there is ever-burgeoning demand for you.
Both of the major framework changes that we’ve been working on deal with livelihoods. Because if you can’t contribute to change, in a world defined by everything changing (and yet connected), then you are not going to have a livelihood. This new reality is the complete opposite of the old world, where jobs were characterised by repetition. Those old jobs are dying. But if you are a changemaker, there is no job shortage; indeed, there is ever-burgeoning demand for you.
Societies everywhere are increasingly divided into the people who have the abilities that this explosively growing new world demands and those that do not. The demand for the former significantly exceeds supply, which is why the salaries and incomes of that group are going up. But then you have a large population that isn’t able to play in this new game. Their jobs are in a precipitous death dive, as are their incomes and sense of belonging.
And we are at a stage of history where if you’re not a changemaker, your livelihood, your satisfaction, your ability to contribute in any dimension of life are all in free fall. And as a result, societies all over the world are divided and angry and therefore unable to deal with their problems. If you do not allow people to have the ability and power to give—which is the most fundamental right if you think about it—where are they in life? This power to give is linked to livelihoods, which is a far more accurate way to look at the field than mere jobs.
A lot that has changed as a result of the pandemic and the climate emergency and growing inequality are huge challenges. In India, we’re seeing increasing unemployment as well. What needs to be done differently to be able to solve the challenge of livelihoods in the context of all these other challenges that we face?
The areas your question talks about are several examples of a world where everything is changing faster and faster. For people like us change is the norm; it’s comfortable, and we know what to do. We know how to put ourselves together with all sorts of combinations of people. We are part of not just one but many such teams. We help one another get better at it.
Now, imagine what it’s like if you’re not part of this team-of-teams world. It’s not going to go well for you. Those who already have the power to give must realise it is critical that they help everyone else be the best possible players, because otherwise neither their team nor society is going to do very well.
The right to give, to have the ability to give, is the most fundamental right.
The right to give, to have the ability to give, is the most fundamental right. The biggest gift is giving other people the gift of being able to give. And that’s what every member of the team in a fast-changing, ever-connected world requires. There is no ambiguity about this—it brings health, happiness, and longevity. And in all the great philosophic traditions, you can’t practice love and respect in action if you don’t have the abilities to give.
COVID-19, the climate crisis, and other changes are only going to get bigger, faster, and more and more interconnected. Unable to play or contribute, you are a failure. Just think about that. We’ve got maybe 40 percent of the world’s population that thinks they are failures. They know that there’s no demand for them, and that things aren’t going to be very good for their kids either.
I don’t have the statistics for India, but in the US, when you compare the counties with little changemaking with those that are strong on changemaking, the low changemaking counties have lost four years of life expectancy in one generation. That’s only one of the costs of not having the abilities to contribute.
How do you define counties that are changemaking versus those that are not? And what is the role of business in adopting this concept?
One simple measure is the proportion of the jobs that are repetitive. If you’ve got a significant proportion of repetitive jobs, your economy is going down fast, because those jobs are going away. Moreover, you’ve got a population that doesn’t have the ability to play the new game, so no one brings the new jobs there because the people can’t fill them. And so you have an accelerating downward spiral.
Now let’s think about businesses for a moment. Your business is not going to succeed if you don’t help all your workers become changemakers. The CEO of a large (5,000 employees), successful company in the US recently told me that his whole business system could be under threat from anyone. He therefore needed everybody in his organisation to be looking for possibilities and threats all the time. He estimated that 10 or 15 of his people might spot such an environmental change, clearly not enough to survive in a rapidly changing world. He came to Ashoka for help because he knew he needed everyone in his company to be thinking like those 10 to 15 people. He is unusual in that he could see and articulate the problem.
It’s not just a matter of ethics, of being fair to your employees, but also of survival.
The answer to his—and other business leaders’—problem is that everyone needs to be a changemaker in their organisation. It’s not just a matter of ethics, of being fair to your employees, but also of survival. Companies that are not everyone-a-changemaker organisations are in big trouble. And they’re going to get into more trouble as the rate of change and interconnection keeps getting faster. Perhaps your company has been able to get by for a while, because everyone else is behaving in the old way. But as that stops being the case, you are on thin ice.
If you want to move ahead, well, you should be able to see and understand this new everything-changing world. And you’ve got to have all your people be able to see it and play in it. You’ve got to organise as a fluid, open, integrated, purposive team of teams. And if you don’t do that, changemakers won’t work with you. Those two things go together.
What gives you hope for the next generation?
When you talk to anyone who has the gift of being able to give, they have a good life and they’re helping other people have that gift. When you imagine what the world is going to be like when everyone is a giver, and everyone is helping others be ever more powerful givers, that is a completely coherent world. And it’s very close to the traditional South Asian view on the purpose of life—it is about being one with the universe. That’s the highest level of empathy.
Development has always been about how to help people be powerful.
Development has always been about how to help people be powerful. So, if we’re all helping one another be the best possible changemakers, that is, givers, that’s a pretty good world. Everyone has the ability. Everyone has that right. We just have to link arms and make sure that everyone does get that right. Because otherwise we’re going to suffer a rapidly deepening ‘new inequality’. That means society’s divisions will get worse. As will our ability to deal with COVID-19, climate change, income inequality, and so on.
Changemaking is the new literacy. It is the new reality.