David Green was consumed with the idea that hearing aids need not cost as much as they do. He thought he had a technology that could cut the cost of a simple hearing aid from $1500 to less than $100.

“There are 250 million hearing-impaired people around the world and most of them just can’t afford a decent hearing aid. I figured I could make a self-sustaining business and carry forward a social mission at the same time,” says Green.

A friend at Johns Hopkins University forwarded him an application to an organization he had never heard of, Ashoka. “They were looking for social entrepreneurs and I only said, ‘What is that?’” Green remembers. “They said, ‘You’re one.’ They showed me I was not a frog, but a prince.”

Ashoka was founded 23 years ago by attorney-activist Bill Drayton, who had hoped to create an organization that could fund individuals who wanted to apply business principles to accomplish social good. Rather than just set up a foundation and dispense money to do-good organizations, Drayton’s Ashoka went out to seek people who had good ideas and the passion to implement them. Ashoka would give them grants and make them Ashoka Fellows, anointing them as social entrepreneurs, a then-new term, and giving them a community of fellows on whom to lean for help.

Green, who became an Ashoka Fellow in 2000, received a three-year, $55,000-a-year salary stipend. “It wasn’t all that much, but it paid me so I could concentrate on getting the hearing-aid business started. I could go out and take a risk,” he says.

The result is the Affordable Hearing Aid Project, which started manufacturing hearing aids in India in February. Green’s cost per hearing aid is $45 and he intends to sell them at whatever the affordable rate is in a particular area. That could mean setting the price at several hundred dollars in developed countries or it could mean virtually giving them away in the world’s poorest nations. He has leveraged his Ashoka Fellow money into getting grants of $2.6 million and intends to expand the business model to as many kinds of health-care delivery systems as possible. His current title is executive director of Project Impact, a non-profit organization trying to make medical technology available to those in developing countries.

The first line of Ashoka’s mission statement says that it intends to “develop the profession of social entrepreneurship around the world,” which, for this organization, means more than 40 countries.

“My job is to find 43 Ashoka Fellows in North America every year,” says Wharton graduate Paul Herman, director of North American fellowships for Ashoka. “We believe that great social entrepreneurs are a one-in-ten-million proposition, so that means there should be 28 in the U.S., three in Canada and 12 in Mexico every year.”

In its 23 years, Ashoka has funded 1,300 fellows, getting its own support from foundations and individuals who agree with its social-entrepreneurship mission. Among its big current funders are Craig McCaw, the founder of McCaw Cellular; Jeffrey Skoll, a founder of E-Bay; and the foundation of one of Skoll’s E-Bay co-founders, Pierre Omidyar.

“We believe that individuals, given proper support, can be global change-makers,” says Steve Swift, the Omidyar Foundation’s vice president for communications. “We are a young foundation with great aspirations and we are very interested in Ashoka’s track record in accumulating knowledge, and people with that knowledge.”

Earth Summits and Eco-farms

Anil Chitrakar was put off by Ashoka’s vaunted selection process for fellows. He had been trying to set up what he thought would be a valuable system of children’s environmental camps to promote awareness in Nepalese villages of how keeping the environment clean could help advance the local economy.

“I was referred to Ashoka by a Nepalese friend,” says Chitrakar, an American-trained energy specialist. “Several people came and interviewed me for two days, asking lots and lots of questions, many of which annoyed me. I just walked away from that saying, ‘I’m doing it with or without you, so just tell me whether you are going to help.’”

That was 17 years ago and Chitrakar is glad he stuck it out. He received a salary stipend from Ashoka that allowed him to set up his initial camps. Within two years, he had gathered enough government and private grants so that he no longer needed the Ashoka stipend any more. But, he said, there were other benefits from his fellowship.

“Some were small. I [remembered] a Peace Corps handbook that I thought could help and they found a copy for me,” said Chitrakar. “As we expanded our work to more and more villages and different environmental topics, Ashoka came up with ways to enhance our contacts.”

Chitrakar said Ashoka’s contacts led him to an Earth Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he exchanged ideas with several fellows, including one who had an eco-farm. Four years ago, he and some Himalayan fellows met with a number of Ashoka fellows from Andean countries, once again to exchange ideas on how to encourage environmentalism among poor mountain peoples.

“We view this as a lifetime” relationship, says Lucy Perkins, a Wharton graduate who is Ashoka’s vice president for venture and international operations. “People may get a stipend for three years, but they are fellows for life. This is a global network, because problems are not just local. Working with street kids in India can be much like working with street kids in Brazil. Putting telephone lines in Brazil may be like doing the same thing in India. We hope to solve problems with all our fellows helping each other.”

Stephanie Fischer worked to foster these kinds of interactions between fellows while at Ashoka before enrolling as an MBA student at Wharton. She says that people with great social improvement ideas are not always good business people, which is where the Ashoka connections can really help move their projects along. “These are the most intriguing people you would ever want to meet,” she says, citing a man in Indonesia who had done experiments to improve rice farming on his small piece of inherited land. “Ashoka came in and he was able to ramp up his best ideas, even on this teeny plot of land.

“I’m doing an MBA precisely because of what I learned at Ashoka,” adds Fischer. There are many “amazing people out there with great ideas, but no business skills … It’s places like Ashoka that can enhance their effectiveness.”

Becoming Self-sustaining

Ashoka has established partnerships with specialists, in lieu of actual funding, to help projects along. McKinsey and Co., for instance, gives pro bono business consulting to Ashoka fellows, and law firms such as Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, the firm of the first Peace Corps director Sargent Shriver, has donated pro bono legal services.

“Our biggest source of funding, though, is businesses run by entrepreneurs who recognize the need for this kind of work,” says Perkins. “After business entrepreneurs earn a lot of money, they get to the point where they want to make an impact on society as a whole. Coming to Ashoka, they can do this.

“We also want to find a way to integrate businesses with these social entrepreneurs,” she adds. “We want projects to be self-sustaining, whether that means being able to get funding from other sources or actually selling a product or service, so long as they have the ‘social good’ component.”

To that end, Chitrakar has been at the Virginia headquarters of Ashoka for the last year trying to update Ashoka’s mission. “The idea is: How can we make the sum better? We have good parts, more than 1,000 fellows doing good work, but what would make a better impact on the world is to have things more integrated,” he says.

“Back when I became a fellow in 1986, the term ‘social entrepreneur’ was hardly known,” Chitrakar adds. “Now we have the opportunity to make it a profession. So how do we make universities give it that weight? How do we get social entrepreneurs to be successful in business? What can be the equivalent of the social entrepreneur MBA, the social entrepreneur student loan?

“Now that the term has become more in vogue, we must find ways to make sure it stays something good for society and not just a cliché to be avoided.”