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December 1, 2009

Bill Drayton, Ashoka’s founder, and I agree on many things, but on Ashoka’s rallying cry of “everyone a changemaker,” we’ve agreed, politely, to disagree.
That everyone on the planet, all 6.8 billion of us, has a stake in the future, whether she’s a bottom billion mother foraging to feed her family or a climatologist calculating ice core evidence of global warming, is not a point of debate. Everyone has needs, everyone has rights, everyone deserves the chance to live a decent, productive, healthy life. Given satisfaction of their elemental needs, most human beings will move from the core commitments to self and family to become contributing members of their tribes, communities, and societies. But such acts of participatory citizenship are not change-making. In fact, the business of serving one’s community almost always serves to reinforce social structures and traditions.
The individual who identifies an opportunity to change a system is, I submit, a rare being. Most educated, reasonably well-off people can spot social problems—failing schools, overconsumption and waste, homelessness; some percentage of those may want to contribute to a cause that’s tackling the problem; an even smaller number probably has had an idea for how to address the problem, with only a handful who go on to launch charter schools, recycling programs, or shelters in their communities. You’ve probably figured out where I’m going here, but getting to the point, there’s big difference between the citizen who deplores his community’s poor schools and the individual who establishes a new charter school—and an even bigger difference between that worthy individual and Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America.
Think of it as acts of citizenship along a spectrum, from making a contribution, to making a difference, to making change. All are positive acts of citizenship and necessary to any well-functioning, productive society. Change-making, I’d argue, is in its own league when it comes to productivity. Back to entrepreneurship for a moment. The eighteenth-century French economist Jean-Baptiste Say’s memorable characterization of the entrepreneur as one who creates economic value by shifting resources from areas of low productivity to areas of high productivity applies to social entrepreneurs as well.
An example: Vicky Colbert’s Escuela Nueva addresses educational inequity throughout Latin America not by building one-off schools, but by transforming curricula and creating the community-based and national structures needed to adapt that curriculum to meet indigenous needs. Our portfolio at the Skoll Foundation includes several outstanding social entrepreneurs advancing large-scale, systemic solutions to educational inequity, among them Ann CottonJ.B. SchrammEric SchwarzJohn Wood, and Wendy Kopp. Nothing about these individuals, their ventures, or the change they are driving is in the realm of what any ordinary or reasonably effective person could pull off. Making a difference is tough stuff, but making change—transformational, lasting change—is in a class of its own.

Sally Osberg