Ashoka boosts innovation

By Todd Cohen

J.B. Schramm wants poor teenagers to get the help they need – and often lack — to get into college.

College Summit, a nonprofit he created in 1996 in Washington, D.C., held workshops last year at 24 universities in four cities to help 1,000 high-school students apply to and prepare for college.

As part of an expansion to 25 cities within 10 years, the group will add three this year and shift its focus from serving students directly to helping local communities serve them.

In changing his organization to do a better job of changing the way high schools and colleges support underserved youngsters, Schramm has had help from Ashoka, an international nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that aims to connect social entrepreneurs.

By “social entrepreneurs” – a term it says it coined 20 years ago – Ashoka refers to founders of innovative groups that aim to cause systemic change in their fields.

“What Ashoka does is help us a build a network through which we can have impact,” says Schramm, in the second year of a three-year Ashoka fellowship.

Schramm is one of more than 1,100 fellows Ashoka has supported in 41 countries since it was founded in 1980 by Bill Drayton, a former McKinsey & Co. consultant and former assistant administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Now, Ashoka itself is changing. Founded to support social entrepreneurs in developing countries, the group in 2000 launched its first program serving the U.S. and Canada.

It aims to apply lessons it has learned globally to a society rich in social entrepreneurs, and then recycle their lessons to the global network.

After spending two decades refining the job of finding and selecting fellows, Ashoka also wants to give them better technical support – and systematically collect and share the lessons the fellows learn.

A top priority, says Sushmita Ghosh, Ashoka’s president, is to “use the wealth of knowledge in the fellowships to empower each fellow in a way they could never have been empowered if they had been working alone.”

Tackling the isolation of social entrepreneurs was the idea behind Ashoka, named for the 3rd Century B.C. emperor of India — an early social innovator — and launched in India with three fellows in 1981.

“Being a founder and a leader can be really isolating,” says Leslie Crutchfield, director of Ashoka’s new U.S. and Canada program. “It can be lonely. You are doing something that no one else is doing. You’re at the head of an organization where everybody, externally and internally, looks to you for answers.”

The U.S./Canada program, which aims to have 32 fellows by the end of the year and 100 within five years, is creating “incubation and acceleration” programs targeting services to entrepreneurial nonprofits based on their stage of development, says Crutchfield, who co-founded and edited a magazine for social entrepreneurs before earning an MBA from Harvard Business School.

Ashoka, for example, will help “startups,” or groups up to three years old, get their 501c(3) charitable status, develop their boards and secure their first big grants.

And it will connect “mezzanine” groups, or those ready to expand nationally, with private investors and with policymakers who can help them market their ideas and tap public funds.

Consider Schramm. As an inner-city high-school student in Denver, a divinity graduate student at Harvard and director of an after-school center in Washington, D.C., he found that low-income teens faced big hurdles getting into college.

Because they didn’t go to college themselves, he says, their parents typically don’t help “manage” the college-application process for their children, whose high-school guidance counselors are overworked and not equipped to play that role.

So in 1993, he helped four students at the after-school center apply to and prepare for college. Two years later, he ran a four-day workshop at Connecticut College in New London for 35 high-school students and their teachers. And in 1996, he formed College Summit.

His solution involves “working both ends of the college-access pipeline,” he says.

That includes helping school districts and colleges identify students whose grades and test scores may mask their potential – and working with those institutions to change how they find and enroll promising students.

The group also holds workshops to help students prepare college applications, meet with counselors to pick colleges and senior-year courses, get faculty recommendations and think through the challenges they’ll face in their senior year.

A big challenge for College Summit, he says, is getting “initial buy-in” from local communities, particularly school officials, colleges and corporations.

In 1998, when the group was running workshops at 10 colleges in seven states, a McKinsey consultant donated some time to assess the operation and suggested the group could be more effective by concentrating its efforts in fewer states.

So with $500,000 from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in Miami, College Summit cut back to four cities – Chicago, Denver, the District of Columbia and Miami.

Nearly eight of 10 students that College Summit assists have enrolled in college, compared with less than five of 10 low-income high-school graduates nationally, Schramm says.

And eight of 10 College Summit grads who enrolled in a college or university either still were enrolled or graduated within six years, compared with a college graduation rate of roughly two in 10 for low-income black students, he says.

As part of its plan to serve 25 communities within a decade, the group this year will launch operations in Dallas, the Central Valley of California and Charleston, W.Va.

And it will begin shifting its focus to equipping communities to take on the job of working more closely with low-income teens.

In addition to providing $150,000 over three years, Ashoka has connected Schramm to people who can help him better cope with the change he’s trying to bring about – both inside his own organization and in the field of education, he says.

“At the heart of Ashoka’s insight is the idea that leaders drive social change, and leaders have impact through networks,” he says.

Ashoka, for example, introduced Schramm to Dallas Social Venture Partners, a new spinoff of Seattle-based Social Venture Partners that has launched College Summit in Dallas as one of its first major initiatives.

Ashoka also introduced Schramm to the Jenesis Group, a Texas foundation with offices in New York City that is helping College Summit develop and fund the expansion of its operations.

As part of its own shift in focus, the Center for Social Entrepreneurship that Ashoka developed in partnership with McKinsey’s office i
n Sao Paolo, Brazil, is launching a business-plan competition.

The competition will solicit applications from 80 social entrepreneurs in Brazil, pairing them with business-school students and McKinsey consultants to help develop their business plans — and then fund 10 winners, which will get free McKinsey support in putting their plans into practice.

Ashoka and McKinsey also have opened an entrepreneurship center in India, and plan additional centers at McKinsey offices in Germany, Latin America, Poland and Thailand.

Ashoka also is developing professional alliances in the U.S. with management consultants, law firms and lobbying firms that can provide support and connections for its fellows.

Those alliances will serve as a model that Ashoka then will expand to serve its fellows overseas.

“The reason we’re pioneering it in the states is because the social sector is so advanced here,” says Crutchfield.

Ghosh – who previously helped run Ashoka’s operation in India and founded and edited Changemakers, the organization’s print and online magazine – says that in addition to delivering products and services to its fellows, Ashoka aims to help diversify investment in social enterprise beyond government and foundation assistance by mobilizing citizen and corporate support.

“Getting society ready to contribute at a larger level,” she says, “is what a citizen-based initiative program does.”

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