The Challenges of “Great People”

Not too long ago, I finished reading David Bornstein’s book “How to Change the World: Social Entreprenuers and the Power of New Ideas”. The book is pretty neat, detailing the work of several “social entrepreneurs”, or talented people who work to solve social problems in their communities.

The book also details the non-profit organization Ashoka: Innovators for the Public and its founder Bill Drayton, who helped fund and advise these social entrepreneurs. The stories are compelling, fascinating, and inspiring tales of people overcoming obstacles to make large scale changes for the better.

What bothers me about the book, though, is while it’s called “How to Change the World”, it’s not actually a how-to book at all… at least not in any way that is immediately actionable or doesn’t involve doing a lot of reading between the lines. The key premise is that there are great people out there who have great ideas and can do great things if only we trust them and fund them.

But if you aren’t one of these great people — or worse yet, you have no idea how to find these great people and trust them and fund them — then you’re out of luck. While there’s a bit of confusion and mixed messaging throughout, the book seems to settle on the fact that not everyone can be a social entrepreneur. What are us everypeople supposed to do?

The Challenge of Selecting “Great People”

Ashoka is focused on finding “the Andrew Carnegie, Steve Jobs, and Henry Ford of the social change world” and giving them the funding and support they need to have a good idea. This kind of idea seems attractive to me — working in grant selection for Denison VPC, I know how important it has been to find people we can trust and who we can build relationships with. The idea of also finding people in the prime and pushing them over the edge to success reminds me a lot of angel investing. There’s a certain notion of romanticism in thinking about being the one little push that was needed to get Andrew Carnegie started.

Selection Criteria

But I’m really not sure how to connect this enchanting idea to the reality I’m in, and “move from here to there” so to speak. How do we find these great people, or tell great people apart from not-so-great people? As detailed in the book and on Ashoka’s website, there are selection criteria for identifying great people (and determining who gets the funding and support of Ashoka):

First, you need to be “possessed by a new idea — a new solution or approach to a social problem—that will change the pattern in a field”. Your idea also must be likely to “change the field significantly and that will trigger nationwide impact or, for smaller countries, broader regional change”. For example, Ashoka won’t fund building a school unless its part of a broader program to reform education.

…You also need to be “creative both as goal-setting visionaries and as problem solvers capable of engineering their visions into reality”.

…And the most important criterion, apparently, is entrepreneurial quality, which “defines leaders who see opportunities for change and innovation and devote themselves entirely to making that change happen”.

…Lastly, you have to be trusted absolutely and without doubt.

My Troubles

Ashoka has a good reputation as an organization, so I’m inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt. But I have to be honest in saying that this selection criteria doesn’t really help me.

There are a fair amount of trustworthy, creative, hard-working people out there, but I honestly don’t know if their ideas will work. How does Ashoka know if an idea will change the field significantly and trigger nationwide impact? Is it just a function of trusting the person, or is their idea evaluated on further criteria?

The book has detailed stories for nine people that Ashoka has supported, and they seem to have done good work for as far as I can tell. What’s missing for me, however, is the tale of the other 2109 fellows. Not that I expect 2109 stories in the book, of course.

What I do worry, however, is that the stories are cherry-picked. This is not to imply intentional (or even unintentional) deception on the part of Ashoka, but rather a question: once you pass Ashoka’s gauntlet, how likely are you to actually go on to high-impact activities? For me and as far as I can tell, this critical question remains unanswered. I’d be interested to see what stories of a randomly selected group of nine fellows would look like.

Another concern is best told by example: Sarah Palin frequently endorses candidates for Senator or Representative in various districts, who then go on to win the election. She then proudly announces that very few candidates manage to win without her endorsement.

But does this mean Sarah Palin’s endorsement causes success? Given that Sarah Palin always endorses the candidate who is leading in the race, this seems unlikely. Rather it’s the other way around — success (and shared values) cause a Sarah Palin endorsement. Thus another (as far as I can tell) unanswered question I have for Ashoka: how many successful Ashoka fellows wouldn’t have been nearly as successful if they hadn’t been picked by Ashoka?

The Challenge of Having a Great Idea

Again, Ashoka seems to be doing good, useful work. But given what I know about ideas — many “great ideas” have been tried that turned out not to work after all. In “The Donor Isn’t Always Right” I gave the example of the well-acclaimed PlayPumps. My co-blogger Kate Kloster points to TOMS shoes and similar initatives. GiveWell has documentation of many failures in education, job training, substance abuse programs (DARE), afterschool programs, etc.

The bottom line is that helping people is hard… especially when you’re looking for dramatic nation-changing large-scale high-impact work. It’s extraordinarily difficult to have a great idea that turns out to actually work. And it’s extraordinarily easy to look at an idea that looks great and seems to actually work, until it turns out that it doesn’t really.

I’d be willing to be the folks at Ashoka are brilliant people, their fellows are brilliant people, and that they know what they’re doing. But I also know that having a nation-changing idea is hard, exceptionally harder than most people think, and very easy to underestimate. If I’m going to buy into Ashoka’s work and trust their trust of their fellows, I’d like a demonstration that their selection process does well.

The First Follower and Beating the “Valley of Death”: Something We All Can Do

Based on my personal skills, I do think highly of myself, but I don’t think I’m destined to be a “great person” who is going to have a “great idea” and implement it with nation-changing, large-scale, positive impact. Maybe someday; we’ll see. And based on connections, I don’t think I’m going to be finding great people and being the funding and support that makes them in the critical make-or-break moment.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t have a recipe for “How to Change the World: Peter Edition”. As Derek Sivers points out in his quick and funny “How to start a movement” TED talk, it takes a group to have a movement, and there’s a lot of room for leadership in being a passionate “first follower”. Without followers, there would be no leaders.

There are ideas out there that need a make-or-break push, but this is the push that comes from lots of first followers. Specifically, I’m looking to the valley of death — a term from business and investment that refers to ideas that are already proven but still need lots of money to scale up.

The problem with “valley of death” ideas is that they aren’t new, so you don’t get the credit for spotting something “innovative”. But they still need donations to implement, or they won’t happen. Amid all the failures, there are solutions out there that are rigorously, demonstrably successful, but they’re not getting the attention needed to be implemented.

I wish Ashoka luck and think they’re doing really cool work. But as a personal donor interested in changing the world and removed from the detailed inside information Ashoka has, being a first follower focusing on the Valley of Death is my best guess at shooting for large-scale impact. Because if I don’t help fund it, it may not happen.

Photo credits: The picture of the book comes from The Ashoka logo comes from The guy with the idea comes from The crowd of people comes from Derek Silver’s TED talk.

This entry was posted in Evaluating and Measuring, Philanthropy, Social Change, Social Entrepreneurship, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Challenges of “Great People”

  1. ThisGuy says:

    First of all, I think your comments about “How to Change the World” and Ashoka are interesting and thoughtful. I like how you note some of the positive characteristics of both. Second, your concerns about Ashoka’s “value added” seem reasonable to me. How should it demonstrate effectiveness? What do these studies reveal? These questions are super important and interesting to me, too. Your concerns are warranted, especially from what is available online and in the book. I’d suggest that some of Ashoka’s impact could be expressed in their annual reports (here:, though I’d also suggest that these tend not to go into the depth you seek. The organization might also think about its impact in other ways than the simply the success of its Fellows– such as the creation of a global support system for raising and training social entrepreneurs– whether or not this info is effectively tracked or shared. (It should be effectively tracked and shared.) Third, is it possible that the “valley of death” ideas that you seek can be found, perhaps, in the work of some Ashoka Fellows? Being an Ashoka Fellow doesn’t mean or guarantee wide adoption of the Fellow’s particular strategy. It means that the org identified a person or team that is at a stage where they need some support and attention. I see how Ashoka’s focus on requiring *new* ideas could be off-putting. (Why innovate when we already have solutions? is another way of saying that.) However, it does seem like sometimes they are highlight perhaps just the organizations you seek. Consider supporting some of those organizations directly with you personal contributions?

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