This Spotlight is a part of a special blog series by the Case Foundation featuring Be Fearless stories from the field. Follow along with us as we meet people and learn about organizations that are taking risks, being bold and failing forward in their efforts to create transformative change in the social sector. This Spotlight is authored by Laxmi Parthasarathy (@laxmisarathy), Director of Global Media and Framework Change Partnerships at Ashoka.
How does a 35-year-old organization stay nimble, innovate and create meaningful change? By setting out on an audacious journey to redefine leadership. Over the last three decades, Ashoka has sparked the dreams of entrepreneurs from around the world and today it continues to be a fearless trailblazer by making big bets focused on helping society see that the world has shifted from patterns of repetition to a world defined by change. The organization is currently advancing a new model for leadership in “framework change”—changing individual mindsets at a large scale and ultimately changing behaviors or norms across society as a whole. As our founder, Bill Drayton notes, Ashoka’s role is to ensure that this change is for the good of all.
From Fellows to Framework Change
In the early 1980s, Ashoka set out to ensure that social entrepreneurship would be studied in universities, would become a common model for philanthropy and would eventually become a new norm for the civil society sector. The program proved to be successful and Ashoka is well-known around the world for its robust Fellowship program that includes more than 3,000 Fellows from 89 countries. We could have stopped there—satisfied with the impact of this program, but we took pause to assess our potential for impact. We knew there was even more that we could do as an organization and network. Today, we are advancing a new framework change. We are helping society envision that more people than ever before can contribute to change. An integral part of this work is ensuring that generations of young people develop cognitive empathy-based ethics and practice the skills of leadership, teamwork and changemaking.
This shift, even for an organization that specializes in identifying, nurturing and supporting changemaking, was not easy, and we have learned a few lessons along the way.
Lesson #1: Building a decentralized, but integrated organization
Electing Fellows in 89 countries and operating offices in more than 30 cities required a shift in Ashoka’s own internal leadership and organizational structure from solo entrepreneurship to collaborative entrepreneurship. Driven by the urgency to ensure another generation of young people would not grow up without being prepared for the 21st century, my colleagues and I took a courageous step to shake things up and build what we called the “Ashoka hub structure.” Rather than opening more country offices and increasing operating costs, Ashoka began to hire framework change leaders in five regional hubs to ensure that our focus was on an integrated global goal. This shift in our structure caused some unease within the organization as it was different from anything we had done before, but ultimately, the organization’s leadership encouraged the urgency of our work to conquer the fear of something new.
Lesson #2: Leading from the middle
It was important to start implementing changes from the middle of the organization to ensure that our vision ‘Everyone a Changemaker’ was not just a slogan, but rather an ethos. Working with staff other than leadership was integral, as they would be the ones to experiment, implement and authentically lead the uptake of new ideas in the organization. Ashoka has always hired highly entrepreneurial staff—we ask tough questions, challenge the status quo and are keen to experiment—so trusting our colleagues to help guide this organizational shift was a natural progression for an organization of changemakers. For example, staff in various regions understood how to incorporate cultural context, local partnerships and leverage existing programs in their own unique ways.
Lesson #3: Team of teams collaboration
For many years, Ashoka’s focus was on supporting systems-changing social entrepreneurs (Ashoka Fellows). Thousands of Fellows later, the insights we have gained and the collaborations we have launched are what position our network to focus on framework change.
Ensuring that cognitive empathy-based ethics are recognized as critical for navigating today’s world defined by rapid change, we brought together a group of Ashoka Fellows who had this expertise and who had been working with children and young people for many years. We didn’t stop there; we began to find, elect and connect a new community of change leaders within primary and elementary schools around the world, branding them as Changemaker Schools. This was one of the most profound and significant changes to the core business of our organization. Along with natural self-doubt about whether we were on the right path, many would ask what business we had working in education. We knew, however, that our commitment to our big bet and the collaborators we were bringing together would propel us forward as we continued experimenting, learning from failure and refining our processes.
As our founder, Bill Drayton says, “a team is not a team unless everyone is an initiatory player.” We had a clear methodology for spreading the idea of social entrepreneurship and are applying this again. We are collaborating with Ashoka Fellows, corporations, media, entrepreneurs and a new community of educators as our “team of teams.” A team of teams structure meant breaking down silos between programs within Ashoka and recognizing that every new project ahead would require a new set of team members—staff and partners—with unique contributions to make along the way.
Managing to redefine an organization’s leadership in the social sector required creativity, an entrepreneurial spirit, empathy and distributed leadership; however, Ashoka’s methodology used to strategically tip the idea of social entrepreneurship provided the foundation and courage to Be Fearless.