To turn a corner, trust social entrepreneurs

The case for funding social entrepreneur-led organizations with flexible or unrestricted grants.

Apr 28, 2020 · 3 min read

The global pandemic has a silver lining: it helps us see more clearly what’s essential and what’s not. It’s allowing us to test out how institutions and groups — civil society, companies, governments, philanthropists, citizens — can, and maybe should, work differently.

Across Ashoka’s community of nearly 4,000 social entrepreneurs (and their networks of hundreds of millions), we’re seeing many compelling responses. In the last weeks, we’ve spoken with DIY makers in Spain 3D printing protective equipment, a Thai doctor readying the health infrastructure there, a consortium of Dutch nurses, a Danish changemaker organizing virtual bike tours for elders at home, a worldwide network of scientists who are fact-checking false claims before they go viral and cause harm, and many more.

Here’s the pattern: many social entrepreneurs are working 24/7 to adapt quickly, surface needs from their communities, mobilize millions of changemakers, and anchor the deeper societal transitions that are coming. They are showing impressive creativity and impact — and many have ready-made solutions not only for the response but for what comes next. What role can funders play to help?

Bring new resources to the table, now

We’ve seen philanthropists open new funds and do it lightning fast. In the U.S., funding decisions that typically take 6–12 months or more, are taking a week, even for multi-million dollar grants. Funders have called us for advice and the cell phone numbers of Ashoka Fellows so they can quickly get them money.

The National Domestic Workers Alliance, led by Ai-jen Poo, pulled together a fund for domestic workers and unlocked more than $19 million in six weeks from funders and grassroots donors. Nick Tilsen, meanwhile, announced a $10M project for Indigenous-led organizations — the result of a dramatically accelerated grant cycle that used a 2-page proposal and turned around in just days.

Show trust, fund flexibly

It’s the job of social entrepreneurs to pivot and adapt quickly in the face of unforeseen challenges and devastation. We witnessed this in 2004 when the tsunami swept across Asia, killing 230,000 people and causing unimaginable destruction. We saw Ashoka Fellows across the region recalibrate and repurpose their networks in whatever way allowed them to best serve the public good in the moment. The last thing they needed to spend time on was drafting new proposals to funders to get sign-off on their new focus.

This pandemic is in many ways far more complex, making it more essential to fund flexibly and in unrestricted ways. To the funders who are doing this in normal times: thank you. We’ve been encouraged to hear from Ashoka Fellows whose funding partners proactively reached out weeks ago and said:

Fund the crisis response AND what comes after

Social entrepreneurs can mobilize their communities for direct impact — food to families, for example, or protective equipment for healthcare workers — but their real gift is driving the systemic change required on the other side of the crisis. Both are needed and with the right partners can be achieved in tandem.

Case in point, Alison Lingane, co-founder of Project Equity, is supporting many efforts of small businesses that employ 1 in 2 American workers and account for half our GDP. Even as Alison works on the crisis response, she’s asking us all: how do we rebuild our economy for greater ownership and equity, not greater wealth concentration? And she’s offering employee ownership as a tool for economic recovery.

As Elizabeth Hausler of Build Change (a disaster-resilient housing initiative) reminds us: the time right after the immediate crisis clears is the period most ripe for transformative change. We’re entering that moment in many parts of the world. Let’s embrace it fully, with the same sense of urgency that we all feel today.

National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) sounded the alarm for America’s caregivers early and raised a $19M fund, the Coronavirus Care Fund, in less than six weeks. (Artwork courtesy of NDWA)


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