Matthew Arnold called Oxford the city of dreaming spires, a reference to the timeless beauty of the harmonious colleges here but also the centrality of thought that Oxford plays for all of Britain. Last week at the fourth annual Skoll World Forum, "dreaming spires" took on another meaning - as leaders in social entrepreneurship from around the world gathered at the University of Oxford's Said Business School. They brought with them touching human stories from the field, ideas about innovation in programming and finance, and seemingly boundless optimism about fomenting social change.
They also brought some very real-world concerns to the "dreaming spires" of social entrepreneurship. They worried about funding and sustainability, attracting talent and working with governments. And many dared to worry aloud about the term "social entrepreneurship" itself - whether it can grow and thrive beyond its current buzzword status, whether it can truly change the hidebound worlds of foundations and established philanthropy.
Through his foundation and the Skoll Centre at Oxford, eBay billionaire Jeff Skoll has emerged as the leading light of the social entrepreneurship movement, which began as early as the 1980s, when technically savvy entrepreneurial types first sought to bring their brand of disruptive change to the world's problems. Skoll may be best known these days as the man who financed An Inconvenient Truth, and indeed he referred to the film and to Oscar winner (and Nobel nominee) Al Gore during remarks under the dome of Christopher Wren's 17th century Sheldonian hall at Oxford.
Skoll said that this "is a changing time for philanthropy," and that much of the focus these days is on bringing business practices to philanthropy. But he suggested that buzzwords like "philanthropreneurs" may miss the point: it's not just about change in the nature of philanthropy, "but a movement from institutions to individuals."
Individuals, he suggested, can move faster and take more chances. "Wherever you find humanity at its worst in the world, you'll find a social entrepreneur working for change."
In practice, social entrepreneurship often involves starting small and leveraging scant resources to create change - whether in environmental science, feeding the poor, or facing down disease. But any movement like this needs star power, and at Oxford that incandescence was provided by people like rock star Peter Gabriel, Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, Google.org chief Larry Brilliant, and Queen Rania Al-Abdullah of Jordan.
"I'm a social entrepreneur," said Karen Tse, when I met her in the line for taxis at the Oxford rail station.
Tse is the kind of little-known hero the social entrepreneurship movement points to as a role model: self-directed, willing to try alternative paths, un-bowed by the limits of traditional philanthropy. In Tse's case, the social issue she challenged was the routine torture of criminal suspects in Cambodia, beginning in 1994, when there were only ten lawyers left alive in the post-Khmer regime. Trained as a public defender at UCLA and the daughter of Filipino immigrants, Tse had always been interested in human rights causes and wanted to put her training to work.
Tse founded International Bridges to Justice in 2000; it's based in Geneva and employs fewer than 20 people with a small yearly budget. Yet, the organization has dramatically improved and even saved the lives of everyday citizens by training and supporting criminal defense lawyers and establishing a network of Defender Resource Centers throughout China. Plans call for expansion in China, as well as Vietnam, Cambodia and other countries where programs are expected to reach critical mass due to public awareness and the creation of professional associations of trained advocates and judges. Last year, Tse was one of the winners of a Skoll Award, and this year, her story was featured in a series of mini-documentaries about how social entrepreneurs operate on the ground.
Inspiration was also clearly the goal of Google's Brilliant, who eschewed discussion of the Palo Alto search giant's philanthropy in favor of recounting the epic battle against smallpox, in which he took a leading role. While the world's problems are many, Brilliant said, he remains an optimist because of what humans can accomplish.
"I visited villages where rivers would not flow because of the numbers of dead babies who had been thrown into them.....I've held hundreds of babies who've died in my arms of smallpox - the face of hell itself - and that disease has been eradicated. Nothing makes me more optimistic than that."
And yet, funding is often a hurdle - even for transformative thinkers. Not every idea is as self-sustaining as Yunus' Grameen Bank turned out to be. Nor does everyone come at social entrepreneurship with the means of Jeff Skoll.
Time and again in the Skoll sessions, committed social entrepreneurs talked about how hard it is to raise funds - donations, capital, "investments" etc. - for innovative ideas that don't fit into what foundations and philanthropists believe about funding projects. Outside of the self-funding ventures in micro-enterprise, the money it takes to fire up major movements like tackling global warming, eradicating poverty in Africa and south Asia, preserving delicate environments, and empowering poor women generally comes from fundraising.
Jacqueline Novogratz, the CEO of the Acumen Fund, admitted that fundraising remains central - that social enterprises "always came back, somewhat reluctantly, to philanthropy - to finding a few big supporters." Nothing I've heard here changes that formula, particularly for start-ups - entrepreneurs have always had to battle, to scratch, to promise their first-born to get the capital they need to launch something. For social entrepreneurs, that means major donors.
Said Novogratz: "Look, we need philanthropic money still."
Edward Skloot has been involved in what is now popularly known as social entrepreneurship for a long time; he's the executive director of the Surdna Foundation, started New Ventures back in 1980, and is a board member of Venture Philanthropy Partners. So when he speaks, two things happen - he tends to frame his thoughts in the long term, and he wears his skepticism rather proudly. Though a friend to the social entrepreneurs, Skloot brings a perspective from a career in government, in the foundation world, and as someone involved in venture philanthropy - the catchphrase of the late 90s.
Ed Skloot said it yesterday. "Scaling up is a very big topic in the states, and there was a big dollar infusion [for social entrepreneurship], and now we're having difficulty in the capital market. That may be the Achilles heel."
JB Schramm, founder and CEO of College Summit, agreed: "We face what so many nonprofit organizations face - the fact that innovation is strangled by fundraising constraints, that [major donors] tend to have a concentration on programs."
He described a fundraising innovation that puts the organization's financial needs on a single term sheet, with quarterly goals and metrics - donors simply buy into the term sheet, and follow the quarterly reports on goals. And he asks them to commit for three years. This takes the "program focus" of donors out of the equation and orients the donors toward the overall success of the organization.
A report released at the conference, Growing Opportunity: Entrepreneurial Solutions to Insoluble Problems, by SustainAbility, Ltd., gave a clear-eyed snapshot of social entrepreneurship and its conclusions identified several real challenges to the movement. The first is money: fully 72% said raising money for their social ventures was a problem, and 74% said they were primarily funded by that very old-school financial instrument - the foundation.
And yet, new financial models were on everyone's lips in Oxford; ideas for building self-financing ventures to bring about change - and strategies for avoiding a paternalistic view of the poor.
"Poor people are left out of the global economy," said Novogratz, recalling a discussion at Acumen when she reached a crucial realization - that social entrepreneurship was about extending capitalism, changing the capitalist system to offer opportunity for the poorest human beings.
"I said look where this field is hurtling us toward - that's the future of capitalism...The first thing we need to do is to find entrepreneurs that look at the poor as viable customers, and not as passive recipients of charity."
"Social entrepreneurship, as a term, is still to a degree up for grabs," said Dr. Alex Nicholls, Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, conference organizer. "It has moved from being almost exclusively in North America, to being much more global. There is a much richer understanding of what social entrepreneurship might mean."
Social entrepreneurs tend to see "capitalism as the driver of change," Novogratz said. But since the dawn of the first industrial age, it has also created an insurmountable gap between rich and poor, powerful and non-empowered. Because of the newly-wired world, "for the first time in history, the rich can see how poor the poor really are - and the poor know how poor they are."
Novogratz touched on some of the points that Yunus hit upon the first night in the gathering twilight under the Sheldonian's ancient beams - that "social investing" shouldn't be just about "helping the poor," but should actually involve the poor. She described products, specifically some well-designed mosquito netting aimed at the poor. "Rich people should not have a premium on beauty, on comfort, on design, and on liveability - there's a power in the market that if combined with empathy and compassion can lead to solutions."