At a time when socialism has proven a dismal failure, and government programs have created as many problems as they solve, Ashoka may well be showing us a path to a better world. -- Forbes Magazine

Rule Breakers come in all forms. Some Rule Breakers are people. Consider Florence Nightingale, for example. She introduced a new way of doing things, a way that soon spread, eventually replacing the traditional way. People may have scoffed at her ideas at first, thinking that nurses, cleanliness and proper ventilation weren't so important to the sick or wounded, but she was proved right. Imagine if she'd been a public company -- after some research, you might have been eager to invest in her, expecting an eventual big return on your dollars.

Heck, America itself was once a Rule Breaker. It seemingly came out of nowhere, with brash ideas about democracy and the rights of citizens, and here it is more than 200 years later, a huge success.

It may strike some as surprising, but charitable organizations can be Rule Breakers, too. Consider an enterprise called Ashoka, that I think is a Rule Breaker, at least in many ways. It's one of the featured organizations in the Fool's fourth annual online charity drive, Foolanthropy 2000. It's also perhaps the toughest one of the five to understand.

You've very likely heard of the famous venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers. "V.C." firms provide much-needed cash infusions to entrepreneurs' start-up companies. You may not have heard of Ashoka, though, which was founded in 1980 to provide early funding to social entrepreneurs. Ashoka finds people around the world who have powerful, pattern-changing ideas and provides them with a modest living stipend for a few years. It invests in them early -- when it matters most -- freeing them to work on developing and replicating their ideas and solutions. This is leverage at its most powerful.

Think of the business world's great visionaries. Typically it takes years for a great idea to catch on. The innovative genius has to knock on a lot of doors, looking for someone to support his idea. A good example is Chester Carlson, the father of the photocopy machine. He had to present his invention to more than 20 companies before someone finally saw the light. In those days, few people believed that just about every office and many homes in America and around the world would need photocopiers. (The Acme Carbon Paper Company certainly had no idea.)

But back to Ashoka. In the last 20 years, Ashoka has invested in more than 1,100 leading social entrepreneurs ("Ashoka Fellows") in 38 countries around the globe (including the U.S.). They're working on issues such as education, health care, the environment, human/gender rights, economic development and poverty alleviation.

These are Chester Carlsons and Florence Nightingales and Thomas Jeffersons. They're local visionaries with local solutions to local problems, whose models can be replicated nationally and globally. They'll probably change their world regardless of whether you and I and Ashoka support them -- but with our support, they'll bring about change faster.  Maybe the world did just fine waiting years and years for the photocopy machine to become widely accepted. But it's a different situation when those who are progressing more slowly than they otherwise could are trying to save people from dying. Or from being disenfranchised. 

I back Ashoka because it backs the courageous few, and it does so when they're taking their biggest risk. -- Louis Harris, founder of the Harris Poll

On many counts, Ashoka fits the Rule Breaker model:

It's just about the top dog and first-mover in an important, emerging industry. There are other organizations these days that act as social venture capitalists. But Ashoka was arguably there first. Ashoka has a sustainable advantage gained through business momentum and visionary leadership. Its founder, Bill Drayton, conceived of its model long ago and has been at its helm since then. The organization's history and momentum have led to its having supported more than 1,000 social entrepreneurs. These folks all compose a network that's hard to duplicate. It's a network where the Fellows can offer each other valuable advice and can share best practices.

Ashoka doesn't have a relative strength of 90 or higher, at least not in the literal sense of the word. But it does have momentum. Good management and smart backing? Well, consider that founder Bill Drayton is a former McKinsey business consultant and that many McKinsey consultants now offer their advisory services for free to Ashoka entrepreneurs. Say what you will about those annoying MBAs in their suits and suspenders, but when someone who has examined the inner workings of many successful large organizations is offering free advice to someone trying to build a big solution to a pressing problem, there's clearly some value there.

Here are some examples of what Ashoka Fellows are up to, and the amount that Ashoka spent to support them:

-- For approximately $20,000, Ashoka enabled Dr. Vera Cordeiro to develop "Renascer," an organization providing critical outpatient follow-up care to poor children who have suffered acute illnesses. It now operates in 11 hospitals in five states throughout Brazil, benefiting more than 11,000 kids so far and reducing hospital re-admission rates by 60%. Her approach integrates health care, skill building, and education services for children as well as for their families based on multidisciplinary teams and community support. Since 1998, five consultants from McKinsey have worked with her organization to spread the model nationally. The first lady of South Africa plans to import it to her country.

-- For about $30,000 Ashoka helped Mary Allegretti save more than 7 million acres of the Amazon Rain Forest in Brazil as she developed the first system of extractive reserves by setting aside areas for jungle dwellers whose livelihood depends on the forest. By developing and encouraging a sustainable use of the tropical forest, the system has also benefited more than 70,000 rubber tappers and 200,000 native inhabitants in the rain forest.

-- For about $50,000, Ashoka helped Rodrigo Baggio accelerate the growth of a network of 200 self-managed computer schools in the urban slums of 13 states throughout Brazil. He has trained almost 75,000 students (who might have otherwise turned to drug trafficking and violence). His network is now opening schools in Japan, the U.S. and Colombia, and it has landed impressive partners such as AOL, Microsoft and Starmedia. Ashoka's investment here amounts to just $0.66 per student!

I hope you're impressed with the leveraging power of Ashoka and with the enormous changes that it can accelerate -- with our support. I invite you to learn more about this and our other featured organizations. Even if you decide not to contribute anything, they'll be happy. They're appreciative of not just the dollars we raise, but also of the awareness we spread.


Selena Maranjian