Ashoka is the world’s largest network of leading social entrepreneurs and one of the few major organizations dedicated to supporting social entrepreneurship in general. Ashoka Fellows are elected for their breakthrough ideas, proven success and large potential for their impact to be scaled and replicated. Each one is changing the world in their own field. They are inspirational as well as impactful. Ashoka connects these Fellows, provides support through connection, knowledge resources, programs and custom funding to help them take their impact to the next level.

I worked with Ashoka, first taking over management of the AshokaTECH Blog, and then leading the redesign of their overall website platform.

1. The AshokaTECH Blog

AshokaTECH was part of a partnership between Ashoka and The Lemelson Foundation. Over the course of three years, they would organize a series of summit events together and elect a cadre of new Ashoka Fellows, all focused especially on technology and invention for social impact.

The blog was the main point of communications where we announced and described the Fellows, announced and chronicled the events and shared other stories of technology and innovation for social impact from around the world. In addition to the website and blog, AshokaTECH had a podcast, Twitter and Facebook accounts, and new posts appeared on Ashoka’s main website via RSS. The blog was started by other colleagues and once I joined, I carried on its management until the partnership’s conclusion.

As Manager of the AshokaTECH Blog, I:

  • Managed all content, researching and writing some myself and directing a group of remote volunteer bloggers, editing and posting their entries
  • Managed social media accounts and re-posting sites for greater reach
  • Redesigned the website with Ashoka’s in-house web developer, improving its aesthetics, functionality and brand alignment with the rest of Ashoka’s websites and blogs
  • Helped to increase the volunteer corps by 50% and readership by 100% in three months

The AshokaTECH Blog was discontinued a year or so after the end of the partnership, but I have kept some of my posts as samples here.

2. The Website Redesign Project

Ashoka has more than 30 websites and blogs, managed from almost as many locations around the world. At the time, they started with the same template and instructions, but many had morphed into their own versions, losing brand cohesion. Ashoka wanted to re-unify their clear brand identity, improve aesthetics and functionality, and add more central control, features and better usability for all managers.

As the Project Manager for this redesign and development project, I worked with Ashoka’s in-house web developer and an outside development agency to build a new centrally controlled, template-based system for all websites and blogs, piloting first with four country-office websites. In addition to defining our goals and desired features from the main office, I spoke with representatives from five of Ashoka’s international country offices to learn what they needed and wanted and coordinated with them through the process for testing and feedback.

We piloted the new websites first in India, Germany, France/Belgium/Switzerland (one office) and Ireland, with multiple-language capability, and later rolled out the new system for the main global website and throughout the rest of the network. New features included a section to browse, search and filter all of Ashoka’s 3000+ Fellows on a global map as well as in list form, improved Fellow profiles (both made possible by converting to one central, global database), easy-to-use homepage slide templates and an aggregated feed of all of Ashoka’s blogs together in one stream.

Top 3 Lessons Learned

1.  Ashoka Fellows are amazing in their ideas, their impact, their creativity, optimism and perseverance. They are excellent examples and role models to encourage more social entrepreneurship by anyone, all over the world, which aligns with Ashoka’s constant “Everyone a Changemaker” mantra. In addition, Ashoka’s entire staff and team are smart, caring and electric in their passion and motivation to innovate and push new ideas forward. Bill Drayton’s concept (the founder) of supporting many dynamic people to do what they do best seems to be a good one, even after 30+ years.

2.  As is the case with most non-profits, funding is a constant struggle and constraint. Ashoka’s model of working in partnerships, where the partner is the funder and they work together for impact and mutual benefit, seems to be a good one. Partnerships and programs, however, only last a few years each and even good programs can’t continue once the funding ends.

As for working for the organization, low pay scales even by non-profit standards, leading staff to move on after a handful of years. This was strategic as Bill Drayton believed that after a few years, Ashoka alumni would go on to do even greater things after their time with Ashoka, and surely helped allocate a higher percentage of funding for programs and organizational needs. Staff who stayed longer than a few years often had a partner who earned more in their own job, so that they were able to cover their costs of living with two incomes, not just on their own.

3.  Even in an organization dedicated to innovation, entrepreneurship and intrapreneurship (entrepreneurship within an organization), hierarchies and rigidity still have a tendency to form. It is logical that not all new, good ideas can be pursued and that choices must be made strategically, with funding as a major constraint. However, some staff members who had been there longer often discouraged newer members from trying certain things or following those paths because they had seen it tried once before and it didn’t work. “Don’t bother” became a predominant theme sometimes.

I think this is natural, and also a force that’s important to actively keep at bay. It’s important to stoke flames of optimism, creativity and innovation at every opportunity. Sometimes it’s just timing that stopped a good idea; sometimes fresh thinking can see how a previous idea could overcome old barriers and work now. Quashing the “what if” spirit means that innovation is no longer wanted here.

Bonus lesson:

4.  At the time, this was a revelation, but almost common sense now: websites, blogs and social media are cheap and very effective ways to expand your audiences. With commitment to consistent, fresh and interesting content, even every few days, viewers and audiences see you, have a reason to follow on social media and visit blogs again, and your reach grows and grows. Once you stop producing new content or lose your consistency, that momentum slows fast and takes a while to build again. It’s a simple rule and it works if you can stay committed to it.