In an article in this month’s Fast Company, Keith Hammonds profiles an unlikely hero of social and environmental progressives: Ashoka founder Bill Drayton. Drayton, a former Director at McKinsey and the Environmental Protection Agency, is now a philanthropist with a difference: Ashoka provides a ‘leg up’ to those with vision, creativity, entrepreneurship and a strong ethical sense, by making them Ashoka ‘fellows’, who receive a stipend, funding for project costs, and the legal, management, intellectual and networking support of the Ashoka team. From a modest start 25 years ago, the group has grown to over 1500 fellows in 53 countries, including some highly celebrated and astonishingly creative social entrepreneurs who are household names in their home countries.

The support team includes representation from McKinsey (management consultants), Hill & Knowlton (PR) and the International Senior Lawyers Project (legal counsel). According to the group’s website, “Ashoka Fellows are individuals who share qualities traditionally associated with business entrepreneurs ó vision, innovation, determination, and long-term commitment ó but are committed to systemic social change in Ashoka’s areas of interest: learning/youth development, the environment, health, human rights, economic development, and civic engagement. Fellows receive up to a three-year financial stipend to allow them to concentrate fully on their programs, and in addition may apply for supplemental funding for collaborative projects and are eligible for training and technical assistance.”

Here are a few examples of what Ashoka fellows are doing:

  • Anna Zuchetti of OACA in Peru has pioneered a sustainable development program for environmentally sensitive areas near exploding cities that is now recognized as a model for Latin America, and has won Anna a Schwab Foundation award.
  • Pisit Charnsnoh in Thailand has been honoured with a Rolex Associate Award for his work to preserve that country’s coastal habitats, and in the process save the endangered dugong (sea cow).
  • David Green in the US has won a MacArthur Grant for establishing an enterprise for the manufacture and delivery of health care technologies for the developing world.
  • An international program, the Innovative Learning Initiative, is leveraging the successes and lessons learned by Ashoka fellows around the world who are focused on education of the young, identifying common principles and strategies that have effectively changed children’s lives

What does it take to be an Ashoka Fellow? According to Fast Company‘s Fast Take, you need these five attributes:

  1. Is there a new idea? If there isn’t, the rest doesn’t matter. If it’s new, is the idea going to fly? And will it be big enough to truly change society?
  2. Is this person creative? What is the quality of thinking? What is the history of her creativity? Experiences early in life are the best indicators.
  3. Is this person an entrepreneur? True social innovators need to change a pattern across society. They are drawn to problems, constantly searching for the next advance.
  4. What’s the impact? Will it spread? Most entrepreneurs can easily seed their idea in one place. It’s another thing to come up with a solution that will get traction elsewhere.
  5. Is there ethical fiber? To be effective, leaders have to be on the up and up. They must change relationships — and that won’t happen if there’s no trust.

If you have these attributes, and an interest in projects in one or more of the six areas of interest noted in bold above, Ashoka may give you the start you need. And if you’re looking for more inspiration, check out Fast Company‘s Social Entrepreneur award winners.

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