Be Fearless Spotlight: Ashoka

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.

Be Fearless Spotlight: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

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 Karabi Acharya (@KarabiGlobal), Director of Global Ideas for U.S. Solutions at Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Being fearless means imagining the “impossible.” Martin Luther King, Jr. asked us to imagine the impossible when he asked for a world where his children would be judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin. Harriet Tubman, the slavery abolitionist, spoke about how her capacity to imagine the impossible guided her in her fight, “Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.” And Anne Kronenberg—Harvey Milk’s campaign manager—has said of the gay rights leader, “He imagined a righteous world inside his head and then he set about to create it for real, for all of us.” Imagining a different world is the first step toward building a different world.

My colleagues at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and I ask ourselves every day to imagine something that some may believe is out of reach: a Culture of Health in this country. In a Culture of Health, being as healthy as you can be is part of everything we do as a society. In a Culture of Health, we define being healthy as more than not being sick. And, in a Culture of Health, we support practices and policies that address the excessive influence that income, education, ethnicity and even a zip code has on Americans’ health and wellbeing. We don’t think we can do it alone—so we’re asking others to join us—and we are not adhering to a rigid blueprint to guide us. Instead, we are allowing ourselves to be open to emerging strategies that we discover along our path to ensuring everyone is able to live the healthiest life possible.

It’s a shift for us. We’re moving away from the traditional 18-month strategic planning process and toward the belief that the strategies to achieve our vision will emerge as we proceed—fearlessly. This new, fearless direction—reflected in the Case Foundation’s Be Fearless principles—is a decision to not just reach beyond our bubble, but to burst it wide open. As one of the largest foundations in the U.S. and the largest dedicated to domestic health, we’re often encouraged to speak up and lead. But we’re putting ourselves in rooms with people and organizations that have no idea who we are and building unlikely partnerships, where our only purpose is to listen and learn.

My work at RWJF is to lead a team of colleagues to identify and learn from countries around the globe that have already achieved or are making notable progress toward building a Culture of Health. We’re looking at countries that have stopped defining health as simply not being sick—and the policies and practices reflect this knowledge. We’re looking at higher-income countries like Denmark, where primary care physicians actively coordinate the care of their patients, and a sophisticated electronic health record (EHR) system contributes to this effective coordination, as well as better outcomes and improved quality. We’re looking at countries like Wales where data and collaboration are serving as effective deterrents to violence. We’re looking at the Netherlands to see what they are doing in response to the link between climate change and health equity. We’re looking at Singapore, where they are better positioned to contend with an aging population than we are by acknowledging it, experiencing the consequences and making efforts to mitigate them. And we’re looking at middle- and lower-income countries as well. We’re looking at Cuba, for example, where the emphasis on prevention and primary care, community-level clinics and a low physician-patient ratio leads to outcomes that rival most high-income countries, including our own.

We understand that innovation happens at intersections, and we aren’t going it alone. We’re learning from the successes and failures of others, and finding the best and most innovative solutions.

But it’s much more than looking for powerful models or best practices that we can bring to the U.S. Actively learning from other countries unleashes our collective imagination. It provides us—and our partners—with the inspiration we need to make our way along the difficult and long path toward the kind of world in which we want to live. We can better imagine what a Culture of Health will look like by seeing it in practice.

An Invitation to Be Fearless

There are a few ways we hope the Be Fearless community can join us and help us to continue to imagine the possibilities. First, if there’s someone with whom we should be speaking, please let us know. Secondly, if you have stories of ideas or approaches that have come from abroad and taken root, we want to hear them. We believe strongly in the value of a global perspective and want to strengthen this argument by collecting and sharing examples. Thirdly, if there are events that we should be attending in the U.S. or overseas that would expose us to the kinds of ideas we’ve described here or the people we want to meet, please share your recommendations. For all of these, please email us at

Finally, we recently launched our first call for ideas, which is open through May 31, 2016. We are looking for projects, programs and models from other countries that promote a Culture of Health with a commitment to equity. We’re looking for applicants who represent organizations from a wide range of fields and disciplines—both within and outside the health sector. We will support grants from $50,000 up to $250,000 (USD), for up to 18 months. If you have an idea you’d like to share, we encourage you to check out our website for more information.

Feeling inspired? If you’re ready to begin your own Be Fearless journey start by downloading our free Be Fearless Action Guide and Case Studies.