The Messy Business of Social Change – Ashoka U Exchange 2015

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. -Albert Einstein

This quote is one of many from “Who Cares?”, a documentary on social innovation and entrepreneurship screened at the 2015 Ashoka U Exchange. It may seem odd to hear it from a man of numbers, but his words became more evidently true as I progressed through the weekend.

I am an impact-measurement geek. I am strongly affiliated with the effective altruism movement, a community of people who try to maximize the good they do with their money and time. Coupled with my economics and finance studies, I think a lot about quantifying and comparing the “return on investments” from different courses of action. While in business that is fairly simple – nominal profits, adjusted for inflation – measuring well-being isn’t nearly as straightforward. Sometimes it is so easy to get caught up in optimization that I forget just how difficult and unreliable it can be. The Ashoka U Exchange was, for me, a chance to step back and appreciate the complexity of making the world a better place.


At the Exchange I spent three days at panels on interdisciplinary collaboration, student programs, and scaling. The space was ideal for generating new ideas, as program coordinators interacted with university presidents and nonprofit directors with students like me. Across our varied backgrounds common themes emerged around sustainability of projects, influence of programs on young entrepreneurs, and holistic approaches – themes very much relevant to business enterprises.

Yet unlike more business-like contexts, social innovators grapple more with challenges in determining what “profit” is, i.e. setting, implementing, and evaluating work on impact goals. In one panel Mama Kat of New Orleans-based Birthing Project encouraged us to “go in there and see what makes it right and come out learning as much from it as you put in.” X-Lab director Sascha Meinrath noted that, unlike what our intuition suggests, “it’s not about the good idea, but about getting it into the system.” By hearing from practitioners I had the chance to step down from my lofty tower of “doing the most good” to face the messiness that characterizes work in the social sector.

That being said, as difficult as it is, I still think that weighing social impact options against one another is highly important, and an increasing number of social innovators seem to agree. One entrepreneur in “Who Cares?” noted that social entrepreneurs “still use the things that make the business sector great,” and I hope to see this interest grow in size and quality. But in leaving the Ashoka U Exchange this year I am all the more convinced that social innovators need to consciously juggle the countable things with the things that count in order to benefit the world most.


By Roxanne Heston, sophomore