Posted by: Charlie | November 20, 2009

The Future of Social Entrepreneurship

Diana Wells at Brown, courtesy of the Brown Daily Herald

Last week I had the pleasure of moderating a conversation with Diana Wells, the president of Ashoka. We discussed how Ashoka has diffused the concept of social entrepreneurship through its network of fellows. Nearly 30 years since Ashoka started the dialogue, social entrepreneurship and innovation has reached a national consciousness. Last summer, the Obama administration appointed Sonal Shah, former head of global development at, to lead the charge as the head of the White House Office of Social Innovation. With strong growth in the field, Wells gives us a peak into the future of social entrepreneurship.

True to Ashoka’s mission, Wells instructs that funding leaders must be a top priority. She exclaims, “the author of the idea will be its best champion.” Social entrepreneurs must have undying passion to battle trying social issues. Luckily, there has been a surge in leadership funding, with organizations supporting leaders at different stages in the lifecycle of entrepreneurship. However, on a national level, this funding is still miniscule. Wells incites that the Office of Social Innovation’s largest role will not be funding leaders, but contributing to a national set of priorities, primarily leadership. But as a new entry into this growing dialogue, does the office threaten to dilute the conversation?

There is a tension between local solutions to social issues and scalable ideas. To deepen, rather than dilute the dialogue, Wells sees the future of social entrepreneurship as aligned with Ashoka’s strategy: support ideas that are system changing by their ability to be replicated in other locations. In other words, cookie-cutter approaches to change scaling will not work. Instead, change-makers should adopt and modify workable solutions to local issues. Don’t the best ideas often come from another place? Car and Bike sharing germinated in Europe before entering U.S. markets and the British Invasion co-opted the best of American blues and rock & roll. Open-sourced web development expands this trend to a global arena.

The various stakeholders are dynamically defining the field. As leaders like Wells and Shah of social change embed themselves in our institutions and media waves, we can hope to see a future of positive social change.



  1. Thanks for the post; I agree “cookie-cutter approaches to change scaling will not work.” In addition to Social Entrepreneurship, the same holds true for school “systems”, and approaches to solving issues in the Middle East.

  2. “Don’t the best ideas often come from another place?” Of course. Unfortunately, this is an idea that in the U.S. we have often had a challenge incorporating into our knowledge gathering systems. Periodically in the past it has been done. For ex. U.S.AID in the 1980s had a great program “Lessons Without Borders”. Perhaps with the growth of social media and different ways to information share, the “message will get out” to a wider group of people.

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