Everyone a changemaker? Exploring the moral underpinnings of social innovation discourse through real utopias

Simon Teasdale*, Michael J. Roy, Rafael Ziegler, Stefanie Mauksch, Pascal Dey, Emmanuel B. Raufflet

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Citations (Scopus)


The term ‘social innovation’ has come to gather all manner of meanings from policymakers and politicians across the political spectrum. But while actors may unproblematically unite around a broad perspective of social innovation as bringing about (positive) social change, we rarely see evidence of a shared vision for the kind of social change that social innovation ought to bring about. Taking inspiration from methods that recognise the utopian thinking inherent in the social innovation concept, we draw upon Erik Olin Wright’s concept of ‘real utopias’ to investigate the moral underpinnings inherent in the public statements of Ashoka, one of the most prominent social innovation actors operating in the world today. We seek to animate discussion on the moral principles that guide social innovation discourse through examining the problems that Ashoka is trying to solve through social innovation, the world they are striving to create, and the strategies they propose to realise their vision.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)417-437
Number of pages21
JournalJournal of Social Entrepreneurship
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 19 Mar 2021
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Although headquartered in the United States, Ashoka operates internationally to develop networks of individuals and organisations aimed at driving social change at a systemic level. Former McKinsey consultant Bill Drayton founded Ashoka (a Sanskrit word roughly translating to ‘absence of sorrow’) as a non-profit in 1980 with the aim to identify, support and mobilise a network of ‘leading’ fellows who, after a rigorous selection process, are introduced to a ‘fellowship where every member is committed to championing new patterns of social good.’ For many years Ashoka operated exclusively in the global south, mobilising their founding team which had ‘expertise and networks that spanned leading corporate, governmental and academic organisations in the United States’ (Chliova, Mair, and Vernis ). Ashoka now has offices worldwide and, over the 40-year existence of the organisation, has selected and funded 3,500 Ashoka Fellows in 92 countries. Activities are financed by private individuals and foundations as well as corporations, but Ashoka explicitly state that they do not accept funding from government entities. This relates – as we will show – with their self-presentation as a change-oriented network diametrically opposed to what they delineate as ‘traditional’ institutions, such as governments and established NGOs which aimed to ‘alleviate social problems but did not affect the systems that were the root of these problems’ (Chliova, Mair, and Vernis ). In recent years Ashoka has deliberately expanded their focus towards the idea that ‘everyone’ can be a ‘changemaker’ (Wells ) rather than exclusively on the work of their Fellows.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.


  • Ashoka
  • changemaking
  • real utopias
  • Social innovation
  • Utopia
  • vagueness

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Business and International Management
  • Development
  • Economics and Econometrics


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