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May 2, 2012

Flex or flux

The Skoll World Forum is described as the world’s premier annual gathering of social entrepreneurs. It’s an invite-only affair which is able to attract scores of ‘big hitters’.  What happens there is worth taking note of as it’s often a portent of what’s to come further down the line.  One of those ‘invited big hitters’ reflects on five big messages he took away from this year’s Forum.  Like it or not, big changes are coming.


Jason Saul

Takeaways from the 2012 Skoll World Forum by Jason Saul

A new brand of social entrepreneurship is emerging.

The Skoll World Forum—an amazing alchemy of the world’s greatest social entrepreneurs, big thinkers, financiers, philanthropists, and academics—is often a zeitgeist of the latest thinking in the social sector, and this year didn’t disappoint. While the officially programmed theme of the conference was “flux,” the real themes played out in informal hallway chatter, over drinks with colleagues at the Oxford Retreat pub, and in the Twittersphere.

Having participated in a number of these informal “sessions”—in addition to moderating a formal one—I sat down to consider what I heard. Here are my five main takeaways:

1. It’s OK to make an economic return from solving social problems. There was a sea change in thinking this year; social entrepreneurs seemed increasingly fascinated by the market as a mechanism to advance their social agendas. Scott Gilmore at Peace Dividend Trust (PDT) is a case in point. PDT renamed itself Building Markets (the name transition says it all) and even created a spin-out for-profit affiliate called Anchor Chain to leverage the private sector in advancing its mission of building local supply chains. I also spoke to the founder of a leading nonprofit consultancy who confided that he wished he had founded his organization as a for-profit instead, admitting “It really doesn’t matter these days, and the transparency is a real problem for us.”

Heidi Kuhn, Roots of Peace founder, and her daughter Kyleigh are the perfect inter-generational metaphor of the times: Both aim to impact the quality of life for Afghanistan’s poor, but in very different ways. Heidi founded a nonprofit to remove landmines and help Afghan farmers tap into the market by teaching new, higher-value agricultural practices; Kyleigh created a for-profit business called Twenty Four Suns to help local artisans in Afghanistan by creating a market for them in the US.

Also, funders themselves seemed increasingly open to the market as a force for change. One foundation director I spoke with openly contemplated investing in for-profits alongside traditional grants: “Why not?” she asked, “If we’re really about impact, it shouldn’t matter!”

2. Measurement is no longer optional. Measurement had its big coming out party at Skoll this year as the foundation announced its first attempt at portfolio-level measurement. The language and references this year were different too. In past years, there was always talk of “effectiveness” and “accountability,” but this year, I heard more about “returns,” “moving the needle,” and measuring “value.”  Foundations and corporations alike appeared universally obsessed with measurement—no doubt due to upstream pressure to demonstrate some ROI.

I had a fascinating conversation with Andrea Coleman of Riders for Health who found the Skoll Foundation’s focus on outcomes liberating from the regime of randomized control trials imposed by other funders. It was good to see Jed Emerson (father of social return on investment) make a return to the forum and say that he was glad to see the measurement conversation finally happening in earnest.

3. We’re in an age of social entrepreneurship 2.0. This year I observed a new breed of social entrepreneur—more entrepreneur than social. These entrepreneurs (mostly nonprofits) have flipped the paradigm; they see social change more as a business strategy than as a charity program. These social entrepreneurs are finding new and creative ways to leverage the market to advance their social agenda. is a good example. Kiva’s head of development, Bennett Grassano, and I talked about the evolution of Kiva’s strategy—going beyond microfinance to become a source for microlending to other “social markets,” such as education (for example, scholarships) and affordable housing. Ned Breslin from Water for People is another example of social entrepreneurship 2.0. Ned describes his organization’s work as creating new “water economies” in emerging markets like Rwanda and Honduras, and has leveraged the private sector to catalyze his market development efforts.

4. It’s cool to be corporate. “I never thought we’d have a McDonald’s representative sitting at the Skoll World Forum … and I’m massively excited!” So said Pamela Hartigan, who directs the Skoll Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford and moderated a panel on partnerships between social entrepreneurs and big business. In opening the panel, Pamela observed that there is an exciting movement inside companies led by social “intrapreneurs” who are leveraging the core business to make positive social change and profits. McDonald’s presented together with the Marine Stewardship Council to discuss the rollout of sustainable fisheries and eco-labeling Filet-O-Fish sandwiches in Europe.

McDonald’s was just one of 150 companies at Skoll this year-more than double the companies who attended in 2011. Corporations have crossed over into the mainstream of social change. It’s no wonder: Last year, corporations in the US. generated $1.6 trillion in profits, representing the single largest potential source of funding for social agendas. In the session I moderated, Beyond Charity: from Reporting to Returns, Cisco made a presentation about its new approach to market development partnerships (MDPs).

5. People want to move the needle. This year, the dialogue seemed more elevated and urgent than in the past. Entrepreneurs and funders are increasingly impatient with the pace of change; the conversations seemed much more focused on transformation, scalability, and sustainability than ever before. There appears to be a growing distinction between those who are content to “do good” versus those who are committed to “solving social problems” within our lifetime. Some of this urgency is driven by the growing number of living mega-donors, including Jeff Skoll, Gordon Moore, and Bill Gates, and others who are increasingly impatient with the charitable approach of funding nonprofit programs and hoping they add up to something. Questions I heard time and again were:  “Are we really moving the needle?” and “How do I answer the ‘so what’ question?”

It’s clear that there is a “new” brand of social entrepreneurship emerging—one that is more market-driven, measurement-oriented, and corporate-friendly than before. The question is: Will these trends lead to greater social impact?