July 2009

Grant Results


Ashoka Innovators for the Public sponsored a worldwide online open-source collaborative competition through its Changemakers initiative to find innovative solutions to the societal challenges facing young men at risk, such as gangs, addiction, violence and crime. Ashoka and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) program staff also looked at issues such as low graduation rates, low employment rates and high incarceration rates.

The 2007–2008 Young Men at Risk: Transforming the Power of a Generation competition was the fourth Changemakers competition funded by RWJF to help identify solutions to entrenched social and health problems. See Grant Results for descriptions of the first three competitions.

Key Results

  • Three organizations won the Young Men at Risk: Transforming the Power of a Generation competition and received $5,000 each. The competition drew about 360 entries from 39 countries. Four judges, including an RWJF program officer, chose 14 finalists. The Changemakers online community then voted for the winners:
    • Alternative Realities (Mumbai, India)
    • Roots of Empathy (Toronto, Canada)
    • Taller San Jose (Santa Ana, Calif.)
  • Ashoka hosted the "Young Men at Risk Change Summit" at RWJF in June 2008 to link winners and finalists with investors and marketing experts.

RWJF provided $290,296 in support for this project from November 1, 2007 to July 31, 2008.

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One of RWJF's particular interests in the Changemakers competition was to focus on the needs of "young men of color" in the United States who are vulnerable because the education, justice and health care systems do not consistently provide them with the support they need to reach their full potential. However, due to feedback Ashoka received indicating that in a global context the phrase might be perceived as an unintentional affront, wording was changed to "young men at risk" to avoid establishing "color" as the key filter for determining who might be at risk in an international context.

Founded in 1980, Ashoka is a global association of social entrepreneurs working on system-changing solutions for urgent social problems. For the past 10 years, Ashoka has promoted group entrepreneurship through its Changemakers initiative, pioneering a transparent online community that open sources innovative solutions to social problems worldwide, primarily through thematic collaborative online competitions.

Participants include individuals, nonprofits, public corporations, private companies and government agencies. Each competition is launched through the creation of a Changemakers Mosaic of Solutions™ outlining the key barriers and principles framing the competition topic and using a matrix to visually map an initial set of innovations and innovation gaps.

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RWJF funded three Changemakers competitions in 2006–2007 (See Grant Results on ID# 057515). They were:

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Under this grant, Ashoka sought innovative approaches to helping young men ages 15 to 25 reach successful and healthy adulthoods by addressing the societal challenges facing them, such as gangs, addiction, violence and crime. Ashoka and RWJF program staff also looked at issues such as low graduation rates, low employment rates and high incarceration rates. The project's main activities included:

  • Launching a three-month worldwide online competition through its Changemakers program called Young Men at Risk: Transforming the Power of a Generation.
  • Evaluating entries along Changemakers' map of the most promising and innovative principles transposed against the underlying factors that drive a social problem.

    Factors in this case were:
    • Low self-value and stability leads to risky choices.
    • Lack of voice and input leads to disconnection and failed policies.
    • Culture/environment of conflict exposes and enlists young men in violence.
    • Market failures and shakeups displace young men's opportunities.
    • A culture of no accountability.
    The principles of innovation or new standards for intervention included:
    • Create stability and safety without condescension or judgment.
    • Award responsibility with support.
    • Create credible choices and opportunities.
    • Unleash creativity that channels experiences of risk and vulnerability toward leadership.
    • Change surrounding cultures to create a society that values and enriches young people's transition to adulthood.
  • Organizing a post-competition summit for winners, finalists and other competitors to meet with investors and marketing and media representatives.

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The Competition

The Young Men at Risk: Transforming the Power of a Generation online open-source collaborative competition received about 360 entries from 39 countries. A description of all entries is available online.

A panel of four judges, including an RWJF program officer, selected 14 finalists. The online Changemakers community then selected three winners—with some 1,000 voters participating. Awards of $5,000 were presented to:

  • Alternative Realities, Mumbai, India Founded in 2003 by Abhishek Bharadwaj, Alternative Realities addresses issues of identity, health, livelihood and shelter for the homeless in Mumbai, a population that Bharadwaj estimates at approximately 100,000—more than 10,000 of them young men. Despite the large homeless population, Alternative Realities reports that there is not a single overnight shelter for homeless people in Mumbai.

    Using diverse tools ranging from street theater to support groups, workshops and community surveys, Bharadwaj and his volunteers sensitize society towards the issue of homelessness, negotiate with other organizations and institutions to use their existing infrastructure as night shelters and arrange access to medical facilities for the homeless.

    Most important, the organization aims to instill a sense of dignity and citizenship among the homeless youth who make up its cadre of volunteers. Alternative Realities issues identity cards to these youths, giving them what Bharadwaj calls "a dignified, visible existence." They have enacted more than 300 street plays across the city. To date, Alternative Realities has created support groups of approximately 25 homeless youths at five locations, and trained more than 50 homeless youth leaders. The organization hosts an innovative "Night Out" activity, in which members of mainstream society are encouraged to meet and interact with homeless citizens.

    Alternative Realities sought support to expand its activities to include education and vocational-training initiatives for homeless youth and to expand its model to other cities in India by enacting street plays across the country. The organization's plan is to expand to 10 major cities and to construct a transitional shelter in Mumbai over the next five years.
  • Roots of Empathy, Toronto, Canada Roots of Empathy (ROE) is an evidence-based classroom program founded in 1996 that seeks to reduce aggression among students in grades K-8 by raising social/emotional competence and increasing empathy, breaking intergenerational cycles of violence and poor parenting.

    The program, which has a specialized curriculum for four different age groups, is structured so that a neighborhood infant and parent visit the classroom every three weeks during the school year. A trained ROE instructor coaches students to observe the baby's development and to label its feelings. The children learn emotional literacy as they reflect on the baby's emotions, and with the instructor's help use those insights to reflect on their own feelings and the feelings of others. As a result, says founder Mary Gordon, the children become more empathetic and competent at understanding feelings, and are therefore less likely to hurt each other physically, psychologically and emotionally through bullying and other acts of cruelty. Roots of Empathy also uses messages of social inclusion and consensus building to help children learn to challenge cruelty and injustice.

    To date, more than 210,000 children in Canada have been exposed to Roots of Empathy. The program is now expanding to the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

    University and government studies have found that children who participated in Roots of Empathy showed significantly lower levels of aggression and higher levels of positive social behavior than those who were not exposed to the program—and the results held when measured three years later.

    Roots of Empathy sought support for expanded training, mentoring, research and ongoing upgrading of curriculum materials.
  • Taller San Jose, Santa Ana, Calif. Founded in 1995 by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange in response to the high rate of crime and gang violence in Santa Ana, Taller San Jose has helped more than 3,000 high-risk men and women, ages 18–28, restructure their lives, finish high school and develop marketable skills.

    The program recruits youths who have been on the edge of crime or recently incarcerated, and strives to influence their behavior through highly focused job training in construction, medical careers or computer technology—key sectors where the demand for skilled workers is high—with the promise of a job to follow. Taller San Jose aims to replace the influence of gangs in young men's lives by providing a sense of home and family while walking them through the "rehabilitation cycle."

    The construction training program—Taller Tech—uses partnerships between employers, government officials and educators to help students find employment with a living wage. Apprentices participate in 15 weeks of paid training to acquire essential construction skills. The program also offers mentoring and counseling, legal assistance, 12-step support programs and job placement.

    So far, 307 young men have been trained by Taller San Jose and entered the work force. Approximately 87 percent of the program's graduates are employed within 30 days, and 93 percent of those employed stay in their job for at least 12 months. And, in a state where 70 percent of past offenders return to jail within three years, 92 percent of Taller San Jose's previously incarcerated participants have not been arrested again.

    Taller San Jose sought funding to expand its programs and alumni support, to add more students, and to pursue the development of Taller Tech's Hope Builders, a program to build homes for the city's low-income families.

The Summit

The Changemakers competition winners, finalists and other contestants attended a post-competition "Young Men at Risk Change Summit" at RWJF in June 2008 to meet with investors, as well as marketing and media representatives.

The two-and-a-half-day "Change Summit" organized by Ashoka and RWJF featured working group sessions to establish criteria to measure the impact of innovations and to evaluate fledgling programs as well as those suited for replication.

At the summit, RWJF committed to providing up to $1 million in funds to groups that are changing the future for young men at risk in the United States.

In addition to providing a forum for training, collaboration and development of the field, the "Change Summit" also highlighted the challenges of:

  • Hosting a summit conversation among organizations at widely varying stages in their life cycle, size and scope, operating in very different regions in the world.
  • Managing finalists' expectations and understanding of investors' funding process.
  • Meeting participants' desire for practical day-to-day tools.

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  1. Diplomacy and careful preparation is required to manage a summit conversation among organizations at varying stages of life cycle and scope. Most of the groups seeking to help young men at risk are young, relatively fragile and isolated, with little opportunity for peer networking. The change summit should provide an opportunity for them to highlight their strengths—in order to garner essential support from funders—and to present their weaknesses and challenges with candor, in order to learn from their mistakes, change their strategies and find opportunities for mentoring. (Project Director/Brown)
  2. Competition finalists need a clear understanding of investors' funding processes. Some finalists expressed confusion, frustration, anger and disappointment during the summit at what they perceived as a lack of transparency or clarity regarding the funding process of investors, including RWJF. The challenge of managing their expectations could be met if funders offered a frank explanation of their processes. Such an explanation would mitigate finalists' sense of uncertainty—even if it didn't promise funding, or a consideration of their projects. It would also permit a safe environment for give-and-take by parties on either side of the funding equation. (Project Director/Brown)
  3. Finalists need help building a long-term supportive community and a coalition to advocate for their issues. There are many organizations working with young men at risk, but few are working effectively on public policy or have a unified message to present to policy-makers. Though Changemakers builds an online community during the competition, it is up to the community to sustain and manage itself afterwards—a difficult task. Offline activity is hard for Changemakers to track, but it is exploring ways to create stronger feedback loops so competition participants can find opportunities to build a collective voice and strength. (Project Director/Brown)

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The Young Men at Risk Web site continues to serve as a post-competition online community for collaboration, research, inspiration and replication. All competition entries are listed on the Web site, including a roster of the finalists and winners.

As a result of the Changemakers competition, RWJF decided to make grants to four entrants. Two were among the 14 finalists; the others were particularly strong in innovation, potential impact and opportunity for learning what their program models present. The organizations are:

  • Youth Radio at Camp Sweeney, San Francisco: To create a Sports and Fitness beat at the Youth Radio Health Desk.
  • Youth Advocacy Foundation/Youth Advocacy Project, Roxbury, Mass.: To create a Web-based system to assess and promote the youth development approach to legal advocacy.
  • The Brotherhood/Sister Sol, New York (competition finalist): To support their comprehensive program for at-risk young men in Harlem, N.Y.
  • Roca, Chelsea, Mass., (competition finalist): To support its young men's violence-intervention project, a pilot project for transitional employment and case management in Massachusetts.

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Using an online Changemakers Mosaic of Solutions to help young men-at-risk reach their greatest potential


Ashoka Innovators for the Public (Arlington,  VA)

  • Amount: $ 290,296
    Dates: November 2007 to July 2008
    ID#:  063280


Charlie Brown
(703) 600-8232

Web Site


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Report prepared by: Gina Shaw
Reviewed by: Pamela Lister
Reviewed by: Molly McKaughan
Program Officer: John Govea

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