The World that Changes the World


Founder & CEO, Ashoka: Innovators for the Public
August 1, 2010


Many people sense that society’s problems are multiplying faster and faster—and that they are outrunning the solutions.

The answer lies in the hands of two groups of people.

The first group consists of social entrepreneurs. Social entrepreneurs can only be satisfied in life if they have changed one of society’s major systems significantly and for the good of all. They intuitively know they would never be satisfied with anything less. (By contrast, most artists and scholars come to rest when they express an idea; professionals when they solve a client’s problem; and managers when they make their organizations work well.)

As a result, social entrepreneurs are not distracted by local successes that could easily be achieved because of local personalities and circumstances, or by solving a symptom or a part of the problem.

They relentlessly focus in on the root causes of issues. They have to find and develop and refine and drive home groundbreaking approaches. They have to transform the patterns and systems of their field, be it human rights or health, in such game-changing ways that the problem dies.

The faster society changes, the more often and more extensively its systems must be reformed—and the more essential social entrepreneurs become. Not only because they are entrepreneurs, but because their north star is to change the world’s systems for the good of all of us.

Democratic governments uniquely represent everyone (no one elected either Steve Jobs or Muhammad Yunus), but governments, typically structured as bureaucratic monopolies, desperately need social entrepreneurs to imagine and develop the future.

The second group the world needs is changemakers. As the rate of change continues to accelerate exponentially, every part of society—every company, religious house, school, citizen group, city, family, country—must constantly and in many ways also be adjusting. That will not be possible unless the people in that group spot, engage with, and contribute value to all the change around them.

That is why Ashoka’s goal is an “everyone a changemaker” world.

The world that is upon us can only work if everyone functions in society like a smart white blood cell would in the body. Those who are not changemakers do not want to see problems because if they did, all that would happen is that they would feel badly about themselves.

Changemakers, quite to the contrary, are delighted to spot problems—because a problem is an opportunity to help others, be powerful, and exercise and strengthen their changemaking skills.

Both groups need one another. Indeed, social entrepreneurs typically spread their innovations by enticing people in one locality after another to adopt and champion them, i.e., by mass recruiting changemakers. These changemakers, in turn, are role models for their neighbors and also recruit them. Some of these changemakers, in turn, will become future entrepreneurs.

These two groups are both accelerating change and essential to staying ahead of it.

Willie Cheng is very much a part of this extraordinary, magical world.

He brings to it the rigor of his years as a partner in Accenture, where he headed the firm’s Singapore office and led its communications and high-tech practice. Over the last seven years he has, while remaining a leader in business, thrown himself actively into many dimensions of the citizen sector. He has charmed us, challenged us, and helped us think and act more clearly. He has also learned who among us is especially thoughtful.

This book benefits from all this.

Willie and his colleague, Sharifah Mohamed, have attracted an extraordinary group of contributors, and they have enabled them to think together and produce true insights into our field at this historic inflection point.

This accomplishment mirrors one of the field’s greatest—if often little understood—strengths: We work together within and between organizations, people, and movements with increasing skill and ease.

How did the world get the International Criminal Court a few years ago? Certainly not because the nation-states welcomed it: They had blocked it since the 1940s, no doubt because it is the first break in their monopoly of sovereignty. This profoundly historic breakthrough came because 2,000 citizen groups across the world worked together and made it happen.

This book understands the forces at play—the challenges of a world accelerating toward a future defined by change, and the equally rapid emergence of social entrepreneurship and changemaking.

All of us, and all of those about whom we care, must give ourselves permission to be entrepreneurs and changemakers. And we must develop the skills to do so. This book will help.