The 10th Annual Skoll World Forum, which brought together several hundred of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs to Oxford, has just wrapped for another year. The Forum serves as a useful barometer for how the climate of social enterprise is changing.
When it launched in 2004, it was all about celebrating the unknown social entrepreneurs, helping give them global recognition and credibility, and a platform to engage with policy leaders and large corporations.
In that task, it has succeeded brilliantly—over the past decade, social enterprise has become mainstream. Jeff Skoll picks out the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Muhammad Yunus in 2006 as a watershed moment, followed equally significantly in the following year by the award to Al Gore.
So 10 years in, what’s the current thinking? What new big idea now dominates the agenda and concerns of the Forum participants? And where do they think this field is going?
Broadcaster Ray Suarez expressed it eloquently when he said, "Nobody ever comes out and says they are in favor of starving children, or inadequate sanitation, or war and conflict. And yet they persist. So how is it that if no-one is for these things, and everyone is against them, these problems continue?"
Everyone at the Forum was in some way wrestling with that question. Whether it was this year’s Skoll awardee Carne Ross, whose organization Independent Diplomat is seeking to turn the closed, rigged game of international diplomacy on its head, or Salman Khan’s Khan Academy whose new model of free, online tuition is re-shaping how education is delivered, system change is the new game in town.
In "Dare to Imagine," the film from the Forum’s Opening Plenary, a theoretical physicist, a publisher, a neuroscientist, a technologist, a social financier, and a young science prodigy speculate on the next 50 years ahead. All agree on one thing – that the old, incremental way of tackling problems won’t work anymore; that we need to radically imagine new ways of coming together to deal with the accelerating world of change. But the film is also profoundly optimistic – never before have we had so many ideas and tools to help us cope with this change.
Who better to address this issue than Ashoka (where I work) founder Bill Drayton, the man who was among the first to set out the very concept of ‘social entrepreneur’? Drayton outlined to a packed room his view on what Ashoka considers the next big idea in moving the field—what he calls "Framework Change," In Drayton’s view, to fix our broken systems, we need to accelerate the number of changemakers in the world, and ultimately get to a world in which everyone is a changemaker. That message really seemed to resonate at this year’s Forum.
A significant number of discussions highlighted the vital role of young people. Bill Drayton estimates that about 700 of the 3,000 social entrepreneurs in the Ashoka network work directly with youth in some way ,and that helping young people develop the life skills to flourish in this new world is critical to solving the problems we’re facing. In particular, helping a child master ‘cognitive empathy’ was cited by Drayton and others as a foundation skill that could set up a child for life, and speakers such as Taddy Blecher of CIDA and Sandy Speicher of Ideo showed how such models are working in India, South Africa, Peru and around the world.
In this year’s Forum, I sensed a strong undercurrent of feeling that scaling impact need not be the same thing as scaling the organisation. Partnerships, franchising, scaling through influence and encouraging imitation: These were all strong themes that emerged in many conversations. Whether this was a response to a reduced funding environment or a strategic choice based on new more effective ways of delivering impact, there was real optimism about the new models emerging. I saw dozens of deals and partnerships being brokered around me. "I believe in collaborating to the point of pathology," says Willie Foote, CEO of Root Capital. And he should know – from a tiny start-up only a few years ago, Root Capital has now mobilized over $500 million to support farmers in developing countries. If pathological collaboration is Foote’s mantra, I say amen.
It’s always fun to talk about tech, but this year tech was at the heart of conversations on disrupting systems. Whether on how apps helped monitor human rights in the Arab Spring, to discussions on how mobile phone technology is transforming financial services in Africa and insights on tech disruptions in education caused by new models such as Khan Academy. Premal Shah spoke about how Kiva is seeing loans coming from emerging markets into the U.S., defying our assumptions on the traditional north/south relationship. The democratizing power of tech, and ability to impact political situations such as the Arab Spring, was also highlighted, which bring us to…
There was a universal agreement that empowering people as far down the chain as possible is key to the system change that we are witnessing. Whether this is was through technology giving people unprecedented access to real-time information, to apps that can transform anyone into a blogger or journalist orcommentator, the days of the few commanding the many (even if those few are brilliant, enlightened social entrepreneurs) is coming to an end. There was a rising view that lean, flexible, teams are going to eat the lunch of the old dinosaurs, and that’s as true for NGOs and social enterprises as it is for corporations.
Are NGO, the corporation, and the government agency reaching the end of their shelf life in their current form? Sarah Severn from Nike spoke about integrating sustainability into the DNA of the business, and Maura O’Neill, Chief Innovation Officer of USAID spoke about re-engineering the aid model in language any corporate CEO would recognize. It’s getting hard to tell who was the NGO and who was the corporate leader. And that’s a great thing.
The Forum has always brought together leading social entrepreneurs in conversation with corporate and political partners. But this year I glimpsed the emergence of a new beast prowling the halls: the self-identified social intrapreneur, the change maker who is working within an organization or the political system. From pioneering executives such as Gib Bulloch at Accenture Development Partners to his counterparts at Unilever, Mckinsey, and many other firms, these individuals are creatively finding ways to turn their own organizations into change agents. And it’s clear that they are warmly welcomed by the social entrepreneurs – we need change agents within large corporations as well as outside. Will there one day be a Skoll World Forum on Social Intrapreneurship? For my part, I hope that soon people won’t even notice the difference.
As the Forum passes its tenth year, many leaders of the social enterprise movement are approaching or into their 70s or older. A poignant moment occurred during a panel discussion when Bill Strickland, Paul Farmer and former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, titans of this movement, were asked about succession planning and how they saw legacy. Interesting, all answered that they found saw their legacy in teaching, mentoring, and inspiring others. ‘One torch can light many fires’ was a common theme. And the fire doesn’t have to be spread just within the organization—none of them saw succession planning as simply being to find someone to step into their immediate role.
A 10 year anniversary is a great moment to look back, take stock, and then imagine the future. The field of social entrepreneurship has blossomed since the Forum launched and the ideas which a decade ago seemed so radical are now the norm in campuses and boardrooms across the world. If this Forum is anything to go by, the next 10 years are going to be even more disruptive and exciting than the last.