A Lever Long Enough to Move the World

Social visionary Bill Drayton is creating a network of incalculable problem-solving power.


Here is a concise history of the modern world, according to Bill Drayton. Well, no: In real life, Bill Drayton would never — could never, it’s fair to say — be so concise. He is an expansive thinker of remarkable intensity, not easily gathered in — a mind informed by influences as diverse as Gandhi and Hubert Humphrey, and as likely as not to travel intellectual parts sundry and exotic before returning, methodically, triumphant, to . . . the point.


So here is Bill Drayton’s history of the modern world, made concise by us. The Industrial Revolution of the 1700s split society into two unequal halves. Commerce became entrepreneurial and competitive, its compounding productivity gains sparking rapid income growth. But enlightenment bypassed society’s other half, the half concerned with education and public welfare and the environment. As the consumer sector grew more productive, the social sector, supported by taxes and protected from competition, fell ever further behind.

And then, about 25 years ago, something happened. We’ll let Drayton describe the moment: “We could see it,” he recalls. “The system was beginning to change. It was like hearing the ice breaking up at the end of winter in a lake. Creak, creak, groan, crash! The need was so big, the gap so huge, the opportunity to learn right before people’s eyes. When do systems begin to change? When entrepreneurs decide it’s time.”

Or, to the point, when Drayton does.

Drayton is founder and chief executive of a group called Ashoka. It is not hyperbolic to call Ashoka this century’s (much better) version of the United Way, and Drayton the most important innovator of any sort out there — a seer who has correctly predicted the rise of the “citizen sector” in the past two decades and an audacious visionary of what will yet come.

Ashoka, named for a peace-minded third century BC Indian emperor, has identified and supported 1,500-plus Fellows, as it calls them, in 53 nations since Drayton founded it in 1980. (Five of them are winners of our 2005 Social Capitalist Awards.) It seeks out social entrepreneurs with enormous ideas — solutions of such ambition and force that they cannot be denied. They are pioneers like Mary Allegretti, a Brazilian who thought of legally separating rubber-extraction rights from land-ownership rights in the Amazon rain forest to give indigenous rubber tappers economic standing — and then made it happen.


What Drayton has created is a network of incalculable power. It’s not so much about funding, though Fellows do receive a modest stipend. Rather, these entrepreneurs, who typically work alone amid hostile circumstances, get support, ideas, and, quite literally, protection. (When one Ashoka Fellow in Brazil attracted the ire, and gunshots, of local police for his drug rehab program, other Brazilian Fellows intervened with the state governor, and the problem went away.) How do you market a big idea? How do you run a big organization? How do you combat corrupt local politicians? The answers come from other Ashoka Fellows.

The potential of this emerging network is what gets Bill Drayton’s blood coursing. Because he can see what’s going on now, as clearly as he did 25 years ago. Society’s citizen sector is expanding rapidly, irresistibly. Ashoka itself is growing, too: Its budget was set to jump 50%, to $30 million, in 2004. What happens in the next five years, he thinks, will prove crucial to, well, everything — finally redressing the chasm between consumer and social sectors.

“An entrepreneur plows the field,” Drayton says, “and it weakens the idea that change isn’t possible. He seeds with some very user-friendly idea. The next entrepreneur comes, and there’s more plowing, more seeding. Then hundreds. As we wire the world together, ideas flow from Bangladesh to the United States and Brazil, and back. This becomes multiplicative. The network becomes a distribution channel.”

Drayton, 61, is a slight man, nearly inconspicuous, with thin hair and a frumpy suit. Self-effacing and unfailingly deferential, he is not charismatic in any traditional sense. When he speaks, it is at something just above a whisper — and not always on message. David Bornstein, whose recent book How to Change the World (Oxford University Press, 2004) dwells on Ashoka, recalls asking Drayton to speak up above the din of traffic outside his apartment building. Drayton, typically, responded with an expert 20-minute discourse on the effect of canyons on noise.

But beneath the eccentric-uncle veneer is a willful and fearless thinker, a crusader of near-monastic devotion to the possibility of massive social change. (He is unmarried and childless, and lives in a simple apartment a few blocks from Ashoka’s offices in Arlington, Virginia.) He first dedicated himself to the idea of Ashoka while a Harvard undergraduate in the early 1960s, then nurtured it through his years at Oxford, Yale Law, McKinsey, and the Environmental Protection Agency. “Bill is totally committed to an important idea, and has unshakable faith in what’s he’s doing and in the value of each person’s life toward effecting change,” says Julien Phillips, who worked with Drayton at McKinsey and was one of Ashoka’s founding directors. “That’s a tremendously powerful combination.”


Really, all you need to know about Bill Drayton is this: His father was an explorer in the Sahara and British Columbia, and his mother a musician and impresario. That is Drayton: a creative explorer and promoter — of ideas. And if his plan comes off, ideas will drive Ashoka’s future. Ashoka is morphing into a knowledge-management organization, “the sum of its ideas,” as Sushmita Ghosh, its president, puts it. Project managers in Virginia and elsewhere are charged with spotting emerging trends and connecting the dots. They apply solutions that have worked in one part of the world to problems in another, link together similar innovations to amplify their impact, and package ideas in ways that take them from local to global in reach. It resembles, in that way, the Catholic order of Jesuit priests, the only truly effective global service organization Drayton knows of.

Take a relatively simple problem, that of alpacas. In mountain villages of Bolivia, poor farmers with small alpaca herds traditionally have relied on unimaginably primitive production methods, using the edges of tin cans to shear wool. A local organization came up with an answer: a simple but efficient distribution system that grades wool, creating financial incentives for farmers to buy shears and wash the fiber — eventually raising their incomes.

It’s a great solution for Bolivian villagers. But what about alpaca farmers elsewhere in South America, or herders of similar livestock around the world? In fact, Ashoka has demonstrated the Bolivian model to sheep farmers on Nepal’s Tibetan plateau — and they understood it immediately. Making that sort of knowledge transfer happen all the time is something Ashoka is trying to systematize, so that global networks of small producers can constantly share innovations that improve their financial prospects.

Next big idea: Global partnerships between social entrepreneurs and business. To Drayton, these “hybrid value chains” are a no-brainer; the divergence of the consumer and citizen sectors was a “nonsensical historical accident” in the first place, and their reintegration is “profoundly important for the health of both.” Business must use social networks to reach new markets. And the citizen sector needs the marketplace to gain financial sustainability.

Here’s one example of such collaboration: Cemex, the big Mexican cement producer, has invented a plan that encourages families in urban slums to save for cement to build home additions, then provides them with discounted engineering services. Community activists love the scheme, since it promises to alleviate family abuse sparked by overcrowding. And it’s great in principle for Cemex, which penetrates a difficult market and gets paid upfront, to boot.


But Cemex is having trouble retaining the reps it trains to promote the savings plan. So in the city of Puebla, Ashoka hooked the company up with Patricia Nava, an Ashoka Fellow who has created a Mary Kay-like network to provide sex education and AIDS prevention training. The strategy calls for Cemex to use Nava’s existing distribution system, paying commissions to safe-sex educators when they refer cement customers. The partnership, Nava hopes, will “allow us to increase the life quality of many people while [creating] new alternatives to generate money for projects.”

The bigger idea, yet untested: Cemex and other companies use Nava’s network to sell other products. Or Cemex hooks up with similar social entrepreneurs to distribute cement across Mexico and elsewhere. Think of it as a matrix. “The challenge for us is finding ways to institutionalize this,” says Valeria Budinich, the Ashoka vice president who oversees the initiative.

And the really bigger idea, the uebergoal, is that ultimately, innovative strategies like this one will spread themselves without Ashoka’s help. “A hundred years from now, the field will know how to do this,” Drayton says. “The pattern will be obvious. We’ll be able to recognize a group of entrepreneurs coming up around the world on a new issue.”

We will do so, he expects, because of structures and tools being established now. Already, Ashoka has launched the makings of a global accelerator for social entrepreneurs. McKinsey is providing management consulting, Hill & Knowlton the public relations expertise, and the International Senior Lawyers Project the legal support. It’s also negotiating with several financial institutions to create new mechanisms for financing — and it’s toying with the notion of an online marketplace where entrepreneurs and funders could find each other. Drayton is even piloting a professional-services firm called Social Entrepreneur Associates — like a McKinsey populated by citizen- sector professionals.

If this all comes to pass? Well, Drayton was meeting two years ago with eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, whose Omidyar Network ultimately committed to investing $20 million over five years in Ashoka. Drayton described Ashoka’s central goal — to speed and make possible the emergence of an entrepreneurial citizen sector. Omidyar pressed: “That’s an intermediate goal. What are you really after?” It was a good question, Drayton realized.


And he thought, We have this network of entrepreneurs, all of them seeding social innovation. “That is changing a lot of things, upsetting local patterns, weakening existing structures, weakening the idea that things are the way they are. It’s an invitation for people to step up and do things differently. That first change touches a series of people who weren’t doing this before. They’re not passive anymore. They’re full citizens, change makers.”

As of right then, Ashoka embraced a new goal: “Everyone a change maker.”

“Think about the implications for society of that change,” Drayton marvels. “The number of angry, frustrated, unhappy people would be dramatically reduced. And the probability of problems outrunning problem solvers would go away. We’d laugh at the idea. Every single being becomes a white blood cell that solves problems.”

It’s late in the evening, the skies outside are pitch-black, and Drayton is hacking with a nasty cold acquired on his travels. But he keeps talking. These ideas are too big and too important to be bound by schedules, or dinner, or exhaustion.

Drayton speaks often of Jean Monnet, the brilliant financier and diplomat who, in the 1940s and 1950s, drove for the unification of Europe. Monnet understood that a continental organization could solve problems that individual nations couldn’t — and he set in motion a dynamic that would produce, 20 years after his death, the Euro-based common monetary system.


“It’s clear to me,” Drayton says, “that you can’t solve the world’s problems unless you deal with them on a global level. Our field has to be integrated from the local right up to the global. From the beginning, we’ve had to fight against all national divisiveness. You can see the field moving up and accelerating. But at a global level, where’s the Jean Monnet? I’ve wondered for years, who is the Monnet we’re looking for?”

We are, perhaps, looking at him.

Keith H. Hammonds is Fast Company‘s deputy editor.