June 10, 2014

Moving Ideas to the Mainstream

Mark Cheng, left; Caroline Guyot, right

Ashoka Fellows don't settle for growing a larger organization. Instead, they work to prove the effectiveness of a new concept and then find ways to spread that idea so widely that it becomes mainstream. Three important steps to achieving transformative scale—defining the movement, proving it with a pilot, and creating a coalition of changemakers—have helped them succeed.

By: Mark Cheng, Caroline Guyot

How does an idea change society?

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Four years ago, Ashoka launched a program called the Ashoka Globalizer to support social entrepreneurs seeking answers to this question. Time and again, we've seen that Ashoka Fellows, chosen for leading innovative social enterprises, don't settle for growing a larger organization. Instead, they work to prove the effectiveness of a new concept and then find ways to spread that idea so widely that it becomes mainstream.

From 30 years of experience working on the front lines of global social entrepreneurship, we've identified three important steps to success:

1. Define your movement. If you want to create transformative change, you must be able to succinctly describe your core concept. Ashoka discovered this when it started building the field of social entrepreneurship three decades ago. Our hypothesis was that the best agents for change are extraordinary social sector leaders possessed with the same creativity, entrepreneurialism, and drive as the best business CEOs. The challenge was how to convey that to the world. We had to come up with a new label—social entrepreneur—for the idea to stick and spread.

For the first 15 years, the concept of social entrepreneurship struggled for acceptance. But as innovators forged more and more successful social enterprises, the idea reached a tipping point and entered the mainstream. Today, social entrepreneurship is recognized as a global movement.

2. Prove with a pilot, then showcase your success. Defining a concept is important, but offering proof is crucial. To persuade others to follow your cause, you must showcase its success. This means running a pilot to demonstrate the efficacy and impact of your organization's model.

In his famous first experiment to demonstrate the power of microfinance, Muhammad Yunus lent $27 from his own wallet to a group of illiterate women basket weavers. They repaid him in full, with interest. That experiment convinced Yunus to launch Grameen Bank, which today serves more than 10 million borrowers and has ignited a global movement for low-income people to access credit.

3. Create a coalition of changemakers to scale your idea. After a successful pilot comes the process of scaling up. For social entrepreneurs, this can mean encouraging replication, even competition. The more people working on a problem, the quicker they can solve it. The job of social entrepreneurs is to come up with scaling paths that attract the widest possible pool of changemakers for social impact—not just growing their own organizations.

Marta Arango, founder of The International Center for Education and Human Development (CINDE), chose to partner with universities to train changemakers—educators, policymakers, and social workers—in early childhood education. CINDE now works in more than 30 Latin American countries with graduates heading up education and policy positions internationally, improving the lives of more than 10 million children and their families.

Below are some examples of Ashoka Fellows who are reaching transformative scale by following these three steps. Each chose a different path to scale.

Open Sourcing: Gregor Hackmack is founder of Parliamentwatch , an independent, nonpartisan Internet platform that allows citizens to question their government representatives and receive answers that are published online. To scale up the model beyond Germany, Hackmack open-sourced the Parliamentwatch software, and offered scaling support through trainings and consultancies. Partner organizations in Ireland, France, Austria, Luxembourg, and Tunisia have now replicated the platform.

Strategic Partnering: Jeroo Billimoria founded Aflatoun to ensure that financial literacy is part of every child's basic education (read SSIR's case study of Aflatoun here). Initially, she scaled the model through networks of children's organizations. Then, in April 2012, she created a new organization, Child and Youth Finance International , to build a true children's finance movement, partnering with banks, microfinance institutions, regulators, international NGOs, multilateral institutions, foundations, academic organizations, strategic consultancies, and social media groups in more than 100 countries. To date, Child and Youth Finance International has reached 18 million children.

Empowering Others: Jürgen Griesbeck founded streetfootballworld in 2002 to connect organizations around the world that use soccer as a tool to empower disadvantaged young people. Initially, streetfootballworld's Berlin headquarters served as a central hub, but Griesbeck concluded that impact didn't depend on growing the Berlin office. So he changed his model, empowering network members to collaborate directly and learn from one another to establish programs and funding goals. Such collaboration more effectively promotes soccer as a tool for positive social change than top-down administration from Berlin. Today streetfootballworld and its member organizations reach 750,000 young people worldwide, connecting 99 organizations that raise more than $1.9 million a year to support their joint mission.

Changemakers like Hackmack, Billimoria, and Griesbeck are innovating, proving their ideas, and replicating by empowering others. They are showing that if we can engage changemakers to think about the world differently, more people will want to transform society for the better. For us, that may be the most transformative idea of all.

Mark Cheng (@chelcap) is the UK director of Ashoka and a senior advisor to Ashoka Globalizer, a program for scaling leading social innovations. He is the founder of Chelwood Capital, a social investment firm, and writes frequently on social innovation and finance.

Caroline Guyot (@caro_guyot) is business and partnerships manager at Ashoka UK, as well as a program manager for Ashoka Globalizer (@AGlobalizer). She works with businesss and social entrepreneurs cocreating new ways to partner for social impact.

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