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Management in Practice

Can Faith Power Social Change?

Since 1981, the nonprofit Ashoka has helped social entrepreneurs learn to be “changemakers.” A new collaboration with Trinity Church Wall Street, launched by Anne Evans ’78, aims to harness the passion among people of faith for making positive change.

Clergy marching with a banner reading "People of Faith Rise Together to Protect Our Common Home"

The Rise for Climate, Jobs, and Justice march in San Francisco in September 2018

Xanh Tran/Survival Media Agency/Flickr

Anne Evans joined Ashoka’s leadership team in 2010. A member of Yale SOM’s Charter Class of 1978, she has worked in every sector, including as a partner in a management consulting firm, the executive administrator for the National Gallery of Art, and a co-founder of the Nomadic Kenyan Children’s Educational Fund.

Q: Why did Ashoka develop the Faith and Changemaking program?

There’s a bubbling up of creativity and innovation among people of faith, especially young people. They’re eager to make faith communities more relevant in the 21st century. But there isn’t a narrative at large about how much renewal is happening. We felt that the time was right to give faith-inspired changemakers a way to come together, learn, and support each other with Ashoka as a neutral host.

“Even as there’s energy, creativity, and innovation among people of faith, organizations don’t know how to adapt. Hierarchy is alive and well in faith institutions.”

With everything Ashoka does, we see empowered changemaking as an imperative especially given the historical moment that we’re in—moving away from a period of hierarchy and transactional relationships to information being widely available in everyone’s pocket, which gives everyone a certain amount of power. This shift requires fluid, collaborative systems and leaders who understand that success means generating a sense of ownership in others through enabling individuals to have an impact and groups to be motivated and powerful.

We came to the idea of the Faith and Changemaking program because even as there’s energy, creativity, and innovation among people of faith, organizations don’t know how to adapt. Hierarchy is alive and well in faith institutions.

Q: Who took part in the inaugural program?

We put out the call to faith-inspired changemakers and 140 people from 22 countries and 10 different faith traditions answered.

Broadly, we saw three different types of changemakers. Spiritual innovators, people who are creating new models for living out a spiritual life in the world. They may or may not be inside traditional faith organizations. We also saw social entrepreneurs who are led by their faith to do something fundamentally important in the world. And we saw what we call the institutional entrepreneurs. Those very brave people are trying to execute on a shift in perspective within existing faith organizations.

In May Ashoka ran the Masterclass for Faith-Inspired Changemakers master classes for 70 people. A subgroup has continued in an additional six-month program that we call the Lab. We’re trying to build mechanisms where people can travel this road together. We found that’s tremendously useful; they need to be able to talk and share with one another because it’s lonely work.

Q: What does the change look like?

Some people call it flipping the model. Instead of saying to people, “Come to services and we will tell you what’s meaningful and important,” it’s about asking them, “What helps you feel that you’re living out the call of the divine and how can we support you bringing your faith into action?”

Young people today want to find meaning in their work and in what they do in their lives. If they’re going to continue to be part of religious communities, there has to be this shift that enables them to see their role as powerful and making a difference.

Too often, even when youth clergy are building engagement, a lot of them are held back by a frame that says that they’re responsible for creating the opportunities instead of truly putting young people in position to ask what needs to change ’s wrong in our community? What can we do about it? Letting young people lead is profoundly powerful.

We’ve seen this in abundance at Ashoka. When young people step forward and make a difference for others, they see their own power and the next time a problem comes along, they will again step up to help find a solution.

I listened to a panel at Ashoka recently where a young man from Brazil described seeing the impacts of climate change: deforestation, a lack of clean water, and people going hungry in his community. He and his friends got together and planted fruit trees. They created ambassador programs in cities across Brazil. Now, thousands and thousands of fruit trees have been planted; he started a whole movement.

When you hear a young person talk about work like that, they are on fire. They see how important they can be. And for many young people, a grounding in faith can be the foundation of what they do in the world.

Q: How are people using what they learned in the Faith and Changemaking program?

One of our first cohort is from South Africa. He is now running courses on being a faith-based changemaker across a number of countries in Africa. The first was for 300 women; it was so successful that he has been overwhelmed just by word of mouth for additional courses.

That’s what it’s all about, going person to person, enabling them to lead by helping them think through their ideas and spreading support for the folks who are making it happen. Eventually that will wake up the more institutionalized faith organizations to the fact that they need to be part of this as well.

“Imagine the impact if a good portion of the $1.2 trillion that religion contributes to U.S. GDP were spent in a way that consciously empowered other people to play a role in improving society.”

Q: What sort of impact do you hope to see from this work?

Religion-related businesses, institutions, and houses of worship contribute around $1.2 trillion annually to GDP just in the United States. Imagine the impact if a good portion of the $1.2 trillion were spent in a way that consciously empowered other people to play a role in improving society.

It’s an incredibly potent moment to make a change happen because it’s being reinforced by the nature of what our society’s going through right now. We expect that there will be some major institutional shifts as faith leaders work toward new ways to lead. Ultimately, we want everyone to experience the power of putting love and respect into action for the good of all–faith-inspired players included.

Q: You mention organizations moving more slowly than individuals or even society as a whole. What are the hurdles for institutions?

History put us into the hierarchy mode. The industrial revolution valued people getting better at a specialized skill. You operated in a silo. You didn’t need to know what the person next to you was doing. Our school system was even set up along an industrial—one teacher many students—model of learning. Today, we’re playing a very new game. That’s hard for institutions created out of an industrial mindset model.

The everybody-a-changemaker model says you can’t understand everything, you don’t have to know it all, you don’t have to be the leader at the top. Instead, you need to enable others to lead. People at existing institutions, who can see the change happening, are realizing they have to take apart all the components of the organization to allow a more open fluid structure that embraces approaches like lean startup models and a spirit of testing and supporting people who are willing to take risks.

It often requires deep, detailed work to shift the culture, governance, incentive structures, and existing processes within an organization. But when leaders can articulate a vision, often people at the next level—people who can see that their future is going to hinge on being able to make this transformation and therefore they have real motivation—are the ones who are embedded enough to get the barriers out of the way.

Ed Schein, who was a professor at MIT, said you need a clear vision, actionable first steps, and motivation for change. If you’ve got those three components, and I’d add this new frame of everyone a changemaker, then you have a chance of making it happen.

Q: How did you decide to make this what you did next with Ashoka?

I come from a family where faith was important; all my life I’ve been surrounded by people who had a living relationship with the divine. But, while I hold my faith dear, I didn’t speak about it in the context of work.

Then in one of my earliest meetings with Bill Drayton, Ashoka’s founder, he said “What we stand for is love and respect in action for the good of all. Everyone is precious. Everyone is powerful. And that means everyone can be a changemaker.”

I was thinking, “He’s talking about love in the context of a staff meeting? Ok…” Then I realized I was in a place where it was possible to be my whole self. That was more than ten years ago, and I’ve done a number of things with the organization, but they were all based in those everyone a changemaker principles.

Launching this project to bring together people of faith who believe that changemaking is love and respect put into action has been an exercise in wholeness for me. We’re helping to give changemakers courage to step into their whole being and say, faith is part of who I am.