I don't normally try to push my causes on others, but I've been watching and listening to and talking with the folks at Ashoka for over a year now, and I'm convinced that they're the real thing. They call themselves "social entrepreneurs" and "innovators for the public". Their notion is that the ideas of entrepreneurship are ready now to be transformed into the social sector (actually, this is a process that's been going on for some time, according to them), and so similar sorts of fostering that we've seen in the private sector (funding start-ups, rewarding individual effort) will help get things going in the public.
I admire and agree with the notion of fostering rather than dictating change: Ashoka does not try to set policies; instead, they help local citizens implement change as they think their neighborhoods require. By putting people all over the world in touch with each other, and providing training and in some cases funding to those entreprenuers that are trying to change their societies, they believe they can transform the world.
Easy to be cynical about. And maybe they're wrong. But read their founder's most recent statement and see if you can maintain your cynicism:
"The most important contribution any of us can make now is not to solve any particular problem, no matter how urgent energy or environment or financial regulation is. What we must do now is increase the proportion of humans who know that they can cause change. And who, like smart white blood cells coursing through society, will stop with pleasure whenever they see that something is stuck or that an opportunity is ripe to be seized. Multiplying society’s capacity to adapt and change intelligently and constructively and building the necessary underlying cocollaborative architecture, is the world’s most critical opportunity now."
There's plenty of ways to get involved with this crew -- one of their services is linking available volunteers to needy projects. Like any not-for-profit group, they need donations (Ashoka does not accept funding from government agencies). But really, just reading about what they're doing and what's happening all over the world is enough to get you thinking.
And thinking about it, while it's no substitute for action, is at least the first step.