A World of Empathy

I spent last week at the Skoll World Forum in Oxford, a gathering of social entrepreneurs bent on changing the world. 

Ask them what’s on their mind, you will often hear “scale.”  After all, isn’t helping more people better than helping fewer? (And to get investment funding or donations, you better be thinking that way, too.)Yet I think this emphasis is somewhat misplaced. If you could feed 1,000 hungry people, say, and others who were acting independently of your efforts could do the same, it would only take one or two million such efforts to reach the poorest 2 billions people on the planet (if that was the group everyone was trying to reach). One or two million people acting to end hunger seems like a reasonable number

What about funding? Most funders think with denominators. Again, simple math says that it’s not just the number of people that you serve, but the level of benefit in relation to their cost. So, if you and I provide similar support but you’re three times as cost-effective, your efforts should be rewarded–no matter which of us has greater scale. And, by the way, the numerator–quantifying the level of benefit–is much harder to determine than the denominator.
All that said, Ashoka‘s thinking about scale is breathtaking. I had the pleasure, once again, of listening to its and Chair, Bill Drayton, at Skoll.  
If someone other than Drayton were proposing the idea, I might dismiss it out of hand. But, then again, he suggested the idea of markets for tradeable pollution rights–something still considered too avant-garde for reducing carbon in the atmosphere–in the 1970s. He coined the phrase social entrepreneur and, more than anyone else, has made social entrepreneurship a field that is growing in prominence and importance.
And now: He wants to make everyone a “changemaker” by teaching empathy. Everyone? Yes, with an emphasis on teaching empathy to all school-aged children.  
Research has shown that recognizing your own feelings as well as others’ sets a strong foundation for creating change. Mary Gordon (no relation) shared the stage with Drayton. Her program, Roots of Empathy, has elementary school children observe a very young baby over the course of a school year, learning to see the world through the baby’s eyes, and “experiencing” its needs. In so doing, the school children come to understand their own feelings, leading to less aggressive behavior, better social/emotional understanding, and become more caring.
Drayton believes that our repetition-based way of life is near its end. Instead of following directions by rote, to be a contributor in the emerging world–whether you’re a waitress, bank clerk, social worker, or friend–you need to understand the needs of others, and view their “problems” from their perspective so they can become challenges you’re equipped to take on.
This is the planetary movement that Drayton speaks of, and is creating. If this sounds audacious, his methods aren’t. Relying on a team of teams, selected schools will implement empathy programs in the manner they see fit, sharing their practices, successes, and concerns. Their success will invite others to follow. Ashoka has 700 of Fellows, including Gordon, already working on issues that center on children. Their efforts will be incorporated in this larger effort.   
If one school that is successful in teaching empathy is modeled successfully by two others, and they in turn are each successfully modeled by two more, in just twenty such cycles, more than two million schools will be teaching empathy. (And who better than children to teach new behavior to their parents?)
Two million schools teaching empathy could teach nearly a billion young children to have the essential foundation for successful team work, leadership, and becoming changemakers. These young changemakers will be positioned to have significant impact on the world’s toughest problems.   
Within this decade, Drayton expects the world’s children to have been taught empathy. This is a model of what he describes as collaborative entrepreneurship, with teams of teams working locally but also in collaboration. With small local gains contributing to staggeringly large effects in aggregate.
Just imagine.  Drayton has, and he’s been right before.   


PLUS stay updated with news and tips from my latest book, Becoming a Social Entrepreneur: Starting Out, Scaling Up, Staying True, which explores lessons learned from more than 100 social entrepreneurs. 
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