Building Vibrant Communities: Activating Empathy to Create Change

Dear Friends,

Strong, vibrant communities are able to confront challenges, nurture the good, and create change for the better. Such communities are full of everyday people who exhibit a fundamental problem-solving ability—empathy. Empathy is more than just sympathy: It is the ability to understand the feelings and perspectives of others, and thereby to ensure that we are helpful, not hurtful, as our actions affect ourselves, our communities, and the environment. Successful collaboration, leadership, and innovation all are fostered by empathy-based ethics. In short, empathy can help empower communities for 21st century changemaking..

Recognizing empathy as the lifeblood of thriving communities, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation has partnered with Ashoka Changemakers to launch Building Vibrant Communities: Activating Empathy to Create Change, a competition in search of initiatives that cultivate empathy skills to strengthen communities and to equip young people to become leaders of change. In recognition of the Packard Foundation’s 50th anniversary, this competition provides a special, one-time opportunity to celebrate our local communities and source innovations that will help to keep our communities strong. David and Lucile Packard had a longstanding commitment to caring for and investing in their local community, and today we support organizations working to improve food and shelter, arts, care for infants and toddlers, programs for youth, environmental education and teen pregnancy. Empathy is a unifying strength among the leaders and organizations working in all of these areas.

This competition will focus its search on initiatives that create impact within one or more of the following California counties: San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, San Benito, and Monterey. Innovators and good ideas know no boundaries; they can come from anywhere, and if they work for these local communities, they will also help other communities.

Building Vibrant Communities: Activating Empathy to Create Change seeks initiatives that engage in activities such as (but not limited to):


  • Developing empathy skills in order to foster caring communities that give back;
  • Cultivating empathy education to create safer, stronger communities;
  • Helping youth reach their full potential through activating empathy; and
  • Empowering young people with empathy and other 21st century changemaking skills to enable them to confront community issues and grow as changemakers and leaders.


Four cash prizes of US $100,000 each will be awarded to the top entries received. A maximum of 2 Idea Prizes of US $50,000 each will be awarded to early stage initiatives. All initiatives creating impact within the five counties are eligible to win the competition, but preference will be given to established organizations seeking to scale up or launch new, related programs (with the exception of the Idea Prize, which is open to early stage projects). For full rules and procedures, please see the Guidelines, Prizes, and Assessment Criteria page.

Empathetic action needs to be fostered and incentivized throughout communities in order to be sustained. Your ideas for unleashing the power of empathy are vital for our local communities to thrive amidst increasingly complex societal challenges. We invite you to enter the competition or to share about it today.


Bill Drayton

Bill Drayton

CEO and Founder


Carol Larson

Carol Larson


President and CEO

David and Lucile Packard Foundation



"The ability to understand what someone is feeling"—that’s the textbook definition of empathy. But when put into practice, empathy means a whole lot more. It means the ability to grasp the many sides of today’s complex problems and the capacity to collaborate with others to solve them; it means being as good at listening to the ideas of others as articulatinag your own; it means being able to lead a team one day and participate as a team member the next. In today’s rapidly changing world, everything that empathy means is critical to our success—at home, at school, and in our communities.

Launched in 2011 through support from the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust, the Brin Wojcicki Foundation, and many others, Ashoka’s Empathy Initiative is a collaborative platform for social entrepreneurs and others who share the vision of a world where every child masters empathy and who have the insights and innovations that will make that vision a reality. Through this platform, we are mobilizing a global team of teams to collaborate toward realizing a society in which empathy learning is as fundamental as reading and math in early education, where parents insist that their children develop empathy, and where communities and institutions cultivate empathy learning and practice. Launched initially in the United States, the Initiative is well on its way to electing more than 20 new “Empathy Fellows” and 60 Changemaker Schools in the U.S. and is currently collaborating with more than 15 key media thought leaders. Now, Ashoka in Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa are expanding the work around a global integrated initiative.

Equip Students

Empathy doesn't just mean treating others better—it means doing better.

Empathy helps us understand and treat one another better, but it's also a key currency in a world defined by connectivity and change. Gone are the days in which we worked and lived only alongside those who looked the same, spoke the same, and thought the same.

How well we do—whether in the classroom or the boardroom—will depend on how well we forge and navigate relationships.

If we can empathize then we can communicate, collaborate, and lead. We can solve problems—for ourselves and for each other. No matter who we are or what we do.

Advanced Skill Building

The world of repetition—of mastering a task or trade and doing it over and over—is being replaced by one of rapid change. New rules, new openness, and new connectivity require different sets of skills just to keep up, let alone thrive.

Ask an expert: "Today, knowledge is ubiquitous, constantly changing, growing exponentially...Today, knowledge is free. It's like air, it's like water...There's no competitive advantage today in knowing more than the person next to you...What the world cares about is what you can do with what you know."
- Tony Wagner, author of Creating Innovators

Fact: The rate of turnover within the list of Fortune 500 companies has accelerated each decade since the 1950s.

Adaptability in the Workforce

Already, leaders in a wide variety of fields— from business to journalism, medicine, robotics engineering, and technology development—cite the critical role that empathy plays in their employees' and their business' success.

Ask an expert: "In the growing global economy, empathy is a critical skill for both getting along with diverse workmates and doing business with people from other cultures...As the tasks of leadership become more complex and collaborative, relationship skills become increasingly pivotal.
- Daniel Goleman, author of New Leaders

Fact: The ability to collaborate was cited as the number one most important skill to succeed in the workplace by the 1,700 CEOs surveyed in IBM's 2012 Global Chief Executive Officer Study. Communicative and creative were #2 and #3.

Increased Social Intelligence

Empathy is foundational to social and relational intelligence, which are increasingly valued as top skills in school and in the workplace.

Ask an expert: "An abundance of research has demonstrated associations between empathy and a variety of desirable outcomes including positive peer relationships, better communication skills, and fewer interpersonal conflicts."
- Harvard University Graduate School of Education, 2012

Fact: In one study begun in the 1950s and conducted over the next 40 years, social intelligence was found to be four times more likely than IQ to predict professional success and prestige.

Transform Our Schools

Empathy isn't just an add-on or a "nice-to-have": it's critical to creating the kind of conditions in which real learning can take place.

Numerous studies have shown that practicing empathy leads to improved classroom management and more time for learning, for the simple reason that students arrive in class more ready to learn. Teachers, meanwhile, are better equipped to deal with the host of unmet social and emotional needs that students don't leave behind at the schoolhouse door.

Yet it's not enough to focus on students alone: improving teacher efficacy and retention demands that administrators treat teachers with the same level of trust, agency, and understanding they afford their students.

Stronger Student & Teacher Trust

One caring and supportive adult outside a child's immediate family—who both sets high expectations and provides the tools to meet them—can have a marked impact not only on short-term academic performance, but on a child's success decades later.

Ask an expert: "Children's brains are exquisitely sensitive to the interpersonal environ- ments we put them in. Poverty represents a very real stress and threat to the healthy development of the brain. Schools represent the opportunity to deliberately create safe, constructive environments to support cognitive, social and emotional growth. These environments can build strong connections between teachers and students--connections that will be the key to unlocking a student's drive to know and believe in themselves, to forge strong academic identities and to build skills that enable them to succeed in school and in life."
- Dr. Pamela Cantor, M.D., Founder, Turn-around for Children

Fact: In one study, elementary schools with high relational trust saw an average increase in student learning of 8% in reading and 20% in mathematics over a five-year period.

Researchers have also found that a student's level of pro-social behavior in the third grade is a better predictor of academic outcomes five years later than is his or her academic achievement.

Improved School Safety

Legislation alone isn't going to fix the bullying crisis: we need to combat bullying before it starts, by equipping kids with the skills they need to resolve conflict, and to stand up rather than stand by.

Ask an expert:"As a society, we short-change young people by focusing them on what not to do: "say no to drugs" or "don't be a bully". We rarely suggest or celebrate all that they can do to take action and bring about meaningful change. And yet from Damascus to Des Moines we are seeing engaged youth leading with powerful examples of peacemaking."
- Eric Dawson, Founder, Peace First

Fact: Numerous studies have linked empathy to a variety of desirable outcomes, including positive peer relationships, better communication skills, and fewer interpersonal conflicts. By the same token, an absence of empathy has been associated with several negative outcomes such as aggressive behaviors and emotional disorders.

Higher Teacher Retention & Improved Effectiveness

Teacher stress and well-being can determine teacher performance, and accordingly, that of their students. A culture of empathy and support for teachers sets the tone for an entire school.

Ask an expert: "All of us know that when we are in an environment that's caring, respectful and positive, we perform better and are able to give more of ourselves. Teachers are no different. If we want students to learn more, we must begin by showing teachers real empathy, helping them to both grow socially and emotionally. The result is not only that they stay in the classroom longer; they are fundamentally better teachers because of it."
- Ellen Moir, Founder, New Teacher Center

Fact: Currently, nearly 50% of teachers leave the profession in 3-5 years, and U.S. schools spend $7.3 billion per year on costs related to teacher turnover.

Strengthen our Communities

Lots of people are talking about empathy these days, and it's not hard to see why. Empathy is a key part of being a responsible and helpful community member. Imagine communities where everyone has empathy. They are peaceful, productive, and positive places where everyone can learn from one another. Although it doesn't necessarily take a lot of work to build empathy, it does take attention and commitment—but it's worth it for the whole community. Studies show that when people have empathy, they display: more engagement, higher achievement, better communication skills, a lower likelihood of bullying, less aggressive behaviors and emotional disorders, and more positive relationships.

Understanding Empathy

The word empathy is used a lot, but what does it really mean? Empathy is a concerned response to another person's feelings. It involves thinking, feeling, and even a physical reaction that our bodies have to other people when we relate to how they feel. To have empathy, we have to notice and understand others' feelings, but that isn't enough. We also need to care about and value them. Con men and torturers are very good at taking others' perspectives, but they don't have empathy for them.

Building Empathy

All of us naturally have the capacity for empathy, but that doesn't mean we develop it on our own. Children learn how to notice, listen, and care by watching and listening to adults and peers, and they take cues from these people about why empathy is important. All adults play a role in helping children develop and display empathy.

One role we can all play is helping others to expand their circle of concern. People are inclined to feel more empathy for those who are similar to them or in close proximity to them. But when it comes to strengthening community, that's not enough. In strong communities, "members" have empathy for everyone— including those who are different in background, beliefs, or other ways. When you show that you care about everyone in your community and expect others to do the same, it can help them open their eyes and ears to others, including those who are sometimes treated as invisible.

Another important role is encouraging others to take the leap from having empathy to acting on it. Too often, we assume that people will automatically know what to do when they feel concern for someone else, and then do it. But we all sometimes fall into the empathy—action gap, when we care about a person or cause but don't do anything to help. We can help ourselves and others to overcome this gap by modeling and encouraging them to take action, whether it's standing up for someone who is teased, helping to solve a problem, or simply listening to someone who is feeling down.

Barriers to Empathy

Even with this kind of encouragement, some things can get in the way of noticing others, feeling empathy, and acting on that empathy. These barriers include feeling different or distant from another person. They also include feeling overwhelmed or distressed by concern for another person because that can make it hard to act. To help prevent and overcome these and other barriers, we can all: notice and reject stereotypes; respect and value differences; widen our circles of concern; listen closely to others; manage difficult feelings like sadness, anger, and frustration; and navigate social situations ethically and fairly.

Four Essential Steps for Communities

1. Model Empathy


When frustrated with others, pause and take a deep breath and try to see the situation from their perspective before responding. When someone is upset, reflect back his/her feelings or the rationale for his/her behavior before redirecting the behavior. Be aware of others' non-verbal cues and follow up on them. For example, if a friend is slumping in her chair and appearing withdrawn or angry, say something like "I noticed that you are quieter than usual today. Is something bothering you?" rather than immediately reprimanding her. Ask for others' input when appropriate and feasible – and really listen. Find opportunities to incorporate their feedback and respond to their needs.

2. Teach what empathy is and why it matters



Clearly explain that empathy means understanding and caring about another person's feelings and taking action to help. Explain how it can improve your community. Stress the importance of noticing and having empathy for people beyond immediate friends, including those who are different or who are too often invisible. Give examples of how to act on empathy, such as helping, showing kindness, or even simply listening.

3. Practice



Create opportunities to practice taking another's perspective and imagining what others are thinking. Name the barriers to empathy, like stereotypes, stress, or fears of social consequences for helping an unpopular peer. Share specific strategies to overcome them. For example, encourage others to privately offer kind and supportive words to someone who was bullied. Foster emotional and social skills, like dealing with anger and frustration and solving conflicts. Demonstrate specific routines for calming down and resolving disputes. Use advisories and guidance counseling to develop social and ethical skills.

4. Set clear ethical expectations



Be clear that you expect others to care about one each other and the entire community. Don't just put it in a mission statement or on a poster—talk about it, model it, praise it, and hold everyone to it. Do an exercise to help others reflect on who is inside and outside their circle. Discuss why and how they can expand the circle of who they care about. Establish specific guidelines for unacceptable language and behaviors. Ban slurs or hurtful language like "that's retarded" or "he's so gay," even when said ironically or in jest—and step in if you hear them. Encourage others to think about why these words can be hurtful. Enlist students in establishing rules and holding each other accountable. Use restorative justice practices and peer mediation when conflicts arise.


Change the World

Empathy gives us both the will and the tools to be effective changemakers.

Ours is a world that is full of complex challenges, where the decisions of one can affect the whole: a fact made all too clear by the financial crisis, violence in our schools and communities, and a host of global challenges threatening our collective well-being. The faster we master empathy, the faster we can look beyond our past squabbles and build lasting solutions where others still see problems.

Empathy motivates us to act and build something better together. But is also ensures we act well: informed by a deep understanding and respect for others, working collaboratively across disciplinary boundaries, and creatively addressing problems at their root.

More Innovation & Creativity

Our ability to take on the perspective of others is part of what makes us human and it's core to what makes us imaginative. The best innovators—whether in business or civil society—are capable of exploring problems and their solutions from all angles. Their solutions are "sticky" because people feel understood and adopt those solutions as their own.

Ask an expert: "To create meaningful innovations, you need to know users and care about their lives... Empathy is the centerpiece of a human-centered design process."
- "An Introduction to Design Thinking", the d-school at Stanford University

More Collaborative Problem-Solving

Empathy helps us to more effectively work in teams by understanding and leveraging the unique contributions each individual might make. When we appreciate the motivations, fears, strengths, and weaknesses of others, we can work more productively together in solving complex problems that affect us all.

Ask an expert: "Action orientation without sufficient empathy has at least two flaws. First, people resist going along with proposed actions, which can impede progress. Second, if people do go along, they do so reluctantly, leading to an atmosphere of compliance rather than engagement."
- Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind

Stronger, More Participatory Democracies

Empathic citizens are not only more likely to passively tolerate those with whom they disagree, but they are also more likely to listen to the ideas put forward by those with contradictory views. An empathetic society—and planet—is one that moves beyond stigma toward equality, respect, and solidarity.

Ask an expert: "Empathy is the soul of democracy. It is an acknowledgment that each life is unique, unalienable, and deserving of equal consideration in the public square."
- Jeremy Rifkin, author of The Empathic Civilization

"Schools that help develop cooperative moral sentiments—empathy, trust, benevolence, and fairness—contribute a great deal to democratic education."
- Amy Gutmann, President, University of Pennsylvania


  • The competition is open to all organizations and partnerships from the United States, including non-profit, for-profit, and public organizations.
  • Initiatives may originate in any state, but should demonstrate an intent to create impact within one or more of the following California counties: San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, San Benito, and Monterey. Winning initiatives must be able to be incubated within one of these counties.
  • All initiatives creating impact within the target counties are eligible to win the competition, but preference will be given to established organizations seeking to scale up or launch new, related programs. Winners must demonstrate the ability to absorb the $100,000 prize. Idea Prize winners must have a clear plan for deploying the $50,000 prize.
  • Early phase entries (ideas that have not yet launched or start-up organizations that have yet to document substantial impact) are eligible to win one of the Idea Prizes.
  • Only entries in English will be accepted. If language is a barrier, please contact Smita Satiani ([email protected])


  • Activating Empathy Prizes: Four cash prizes of US $100,000 each will be awarded to established organizations seeking to scale up or launch new initiatives.
  • Activating Empathy Idea Prizes: A maximum of two cash prizes of US $50,000 each will be awarded to organizations that are in the initial stages of demonstrating impact.
  • Early Entry Prizes: Two prizes of $1000 each for entries received by the early entry deadline: June 26, 2014, 5 p.m. PDT.
  • All cash prizes are awarded as unrestricted funding in order to enable initiatives with the flexibility to strengthen their capacity and organizational effectiveness, and their ability to achieve impact over the long term.

Assessment Criteria

Winners of the Building Vibrant Communities: Activating Empathy to Create Change competition will be those that best meet the following criteria:

Innovation: The best entries will be those that demonstrate a substantial difference from other initiatives in the field. Distinctiveness will be given a high ranking by the judges. Innovation does not necessarily involve inventing something entirely new. It may comprise new products or processes, as well as new applications or hybrid combinations of existing tools. In other words, innovation can be present in new approaches to an old idea, or the application of an old idea to a different problem. Entries should describe how their solutions are driven by original, ground-breaking ideas.

Social Impact: Entries should describe how the solution activates empathy to nourish stronger, more vibrant communities and future changemakers. Entries should reflect an understanding of the systemic barriers within the initiative’s specific context, and should describe how the innovation impacts these barriers. The best entries, from established organizations seeking to scale up or launch new initiatives, will be able to demonstrate sustained impact and describe the anticipated impact of future activities. Entries should explain how the solution measures social impact through both quantitative and qualitative data. Early stage entries that are eligible for the Idea Prizes may describe their anticipated social impact and how they plan on measuring it.

Sustainability: Entries should have a clear plan for reaching long-term goals and securing financial backing—they should describe not only how they currently finance their work, but also how they plan to finance it in the future. They should also have a realistic time frame for implementation. The most successful entrants demonstrate that they have strong partnerships and support networks to address on-going needs, and to aid in scalability and the maintenance of a clear financial strategy.



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