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Case Studies in Social Innovation: Ashoka Canada

In 1981, Bill Drayton launched Ashoka, a US-based citizen sector organization that first supported social entrepreneurs in India, Indonesia and Brazil. Bill had travelled around the world and saw the same type of innovative, disruptive entrepreneurs changing the social sector as he saw innovating business. He began identifying these individuals as Ashoka Fellows―social innovators addressing health, education, environment, human rights, economic development and civic participation in completely new ways.

Ashoka launched in Canada in 2002 (same year as in the US) in response to external pressures to recognize social entrepreneurs in North America as well as in “developing” countries. Since then, they have elected 44 Fellows in Canada. Fellows are elected for life and receive financial support (when needed), pro bono strategic support, and access to a global network of peers.

Innovation in action

Ashoka is the global association of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs―individuals with system-changing solutions for the world’s most urgent social problems. They do this by selecting the world’s leading social entrepreneurs to be Ashoka Fellows. They also develop programs, initiatives and partnerships that support individuals in Canada and around the world to make positive social change. Through this approach, they are redefining the global citizen sector by creating a system of collaborative entrepreneurship. By connecting the work of individual social entrepreneurs to business, academic and public sector partners, Ashoka creates a network that drives the sector forward while developing new solutions to global problems.

Ashoka’s development in Canada has highlighted the importance of fostering keen local awareness. It looked beyond obvious networks while they expanded their brand and they invested time in developing networks among harder-to-reach segments. Their motto, “Everyone a changemaker”, captures this principle. Through their work, Ashoka has garnered a Fellowship that reflects Canada’s great diversity.  The organization engages individuals from multiple segments and has acquired various regional inputs to better position it nationally.

As demonstrated by Ashoka’s trajectory, some of the best innovations are very simple and emerge from looking at things from a new standpoint. Within social innovation, many challenges will arise as one goes against the grain of what is normally accepted. Accordingly, it is important that to be patient and impatient at the right times to navigate the tension successfully. During this period of flux, it is best to enjoy the pressure and to use it as a driving force to find good advisors, supporters and champions of your cause.

For more information about Ashoka, visit:

The Case Studies in Social Innovation database is a joint initiative between SiG @ MaRS and the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation.