On the opening morning of the Skoll World Forum, a panel luminaries from the world of social innovation assembled under the banner of “Fierce Compassion” to discuss how the hundreds of global changemakers gathered here at the University of Oxford’s Said School of Business might leverage their influence to more rapidly scale solutions to the world’s greatest challenges.
As a current Oxford MBA student and the founder of a non-profit that helps young social innovators to grow as leaders and advance their work across the United States, it is amazing to see the best of Oxford’s academic community converging with so many iconic world leaders and social innovation practitioners.
There can be no doubt that connections made here over the next few days will propel the field for years to come.
If there is such a thing as currency in the world of social entrepreneurship, one imagines that the names and faces of this morning’s panelists (as well as more than a few audience members) would be among those featured on its bank notes.
Representing some of the most influential organizations in this field were Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation; Alexis Bonnell, Chief Applied Innovation & Acceleration, USAID Global Development Lab; Marcela Manubens, Global Vice President Social Impact, Unilever; and legendary Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter.
To the extent that each panelist was candidly self-critical of their respective organizations and explicit about the need to address chronic shortcomings sector at large, they were greatly aided by fellow panelist Astrid Scholz, a former economist turned tech entrepreneur from Portland, OR who serves as Chief Everything Officer of Sphaera, a cloud-based solutions sharing platform that is working to disrupt the status quo organizations so impressively convened here at Oxford.
Astrid characterized the philanthropic-aid industry as being characterized by rent-seeking behavior and noted that no other industry exhibiting these features has ever avoided disruption, which she sees as imminent – thanks in no small part to the work of organizations like her own.
“Can a broken industry fix itself?”
That was the question aptly put to the panel by audience member and Oxford MBA alumna Aunnie Patton, now with the University of Cape Town’s Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
Alexis Bonnell of USAID said that major funders can adapt to changing realities, and that the biggest trend in social innovation funding was that it was becoming less elitist, beginning to look at beneficiaries as customers, and leveraging technology to democratize and improve the allocation and assessment of aid initiatives.
Professor Michael Porter, who at Harvard leads the Social Progress Index, a framework for benchmarking success of efforts to catalyze greater human wellbeing, urged that improving accuracy of measurement was essential to establishing a better understanding of what actually constitutes effective social innovation.
“Right now,” he said, “we have a very inchoate field, and no standard classifications.”
Achieving consensus on how to benchmark the many initiatives in this field, Porter urged, would enable comparison, facilitate learning, and pave the way for increased effectiveness.
While acknowledging the importance of improved measurement, President Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation, itself a funder of the Social Progress Index, garnered applause from the audience for stressing the outsized importance of how cultural narratives can both catalyze and inhibit social change.
“We have exalted the individual entrepreneur and have disadvantaged the importance and primacy of institutions,” he said, noting that a major focus of the Ford Foundation was supporting initiatives that help to overcome cultural drivers of inequality.
For all the talk of institutional reform vs. disruption, the question of the non-profit sector’s relevance was a matter of equal concern.
Overcoming the glare of stage lights, panel moderator Michael Green, Director of the Social Progress Initiative, called on audience member Bill Ackman of the Pershing Square Foundation, who exercised his famous instincts as activist investor by calling out the proverbial “Elephant in the Room.”
“Non-profit solutions to problems are inherently problematic,” he said, noting that for-profit entrepreneurs like Elon Musk have demonstrated that business, as opposed to philanthropy, is best suited to addressing social and environmental needs.
But what about when the market fails to address the needs of society?
That, said Ford Foundation President Darren Walker, is why forward-thinking philanthropy remains essential, especially so in an era of accelerated change and persistent inequality.
Evidently, there is an as-yet unresolved tension between the sort of experimental, corrective, and exploratory ideas that philanthropy tends to support and the investment opportunities that make sense to traditional investors.
This was well-illustrated by a successful private equity man turned clean energy investor I met here yesterday who told me that certain young folks at the conference reminded him of the show Portlandia, which jokingly chronicles the sort of zany, neo-utopian businesses that reliably flourish in famously creative Portland, OR.
Fortunately, the many dreamers at this conference have not come here to retire. Rather, they have traveled great distances to explore possibilities and exchange ideas with world leaders, visionary upstarts, and established institutions that have the power to accelerate large-scale change.
At the Skoll Forum, we find ourselves at the intersection of global capital and social impact, amidst a watershed of imaginative new possibilities that – if matched with resources – will change our world for the better.
From Oxfordshire: here’s to a week of rigorous self-reflection, dialogue, and world-changing connections.