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.
In October, find Oxford MBA student Karen Ng attended the Critical Mass Conference in London. This key conference brings together prominent speakers from major organisations in the social entrepreneurship and impact investing fields to discuss major developments and trends. Here, pilule Karen gives us her key impressions and takeaways from the event.
“In one month this year President Obama, Prime Minister Cameron and the Pope all talked about impact investing…Not only in rhetoric but also on the ground. Impact investing is making a difference to people’s lives,” said Antony Bugg-Levine in his opening speech at the Critical Mass Conference.
Source: Pioneers Post
You can imagine my excitement about meeting Bugg-Levine for the first time. He is the current Chair of Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) and CEO of Nonprofit Finance Fund, and is one of the individuals who coined the term “impact investing”. Along with 400 delegates from across the world, we spent two days in London to discuss the key actions required to achieve critical mass for impact investing. Some of my key takeaways:
Building trust and empathy
To achieve critical mass, it is crucial to build a community where all stakeholders, including social enterprises, businesses, governments and civil society can trust each other and work together. Kevin Lynch, the former President and CEO of Social Enterprise Alliance, admitted that “it’s really easy for the do-gooders on one side to look at big business and systems and say “you’re wrecking the world” and we here in the impact space are here to correct that”.
The importance of trust and empathy is also stressed by Bugg-Levine, who urged us to “step back and acknowledge regulations and bureaucracy in government for example, as well as the key barriers facing investors”. Michael Green, the Executive Director of Social Progress Imperative, also echoed the sentiment. Given it is hard for the government to go against popular opinion, “the civil society needs to create a conversation and reframe the agenda” on how we define progress of a society.
Communicating impact to a wider audience
PWC TIMM Source: PWC UK website
There are now numerous tools and frameworks to help us collect data and measure impact. However, it is still challenging for businesses to communicate their impact in a simple way to facilitate decision-making. The “big-four” firms have all developed their own tools to take on this challenge – such as PwC’s Total Impact Measurement and Management (TIMM) framework. TIMM places a value (positive or negative) on 20 impact areas under 4 quadrants: society, environment, tax and economics. The combined result is presented in a wheel to help businesses and investors to make decisions and track progress.
In addition to improving the way we communicate impact, it is also important to increase access to such information. One successful example is, Diana Verde Nieto, who founded the website Positive Luxury based on the belief that consumers desire to be connected with brands with aligned mission and values. The website now works with over 200 brands to assess their social, environmental and philanthropic performances.
Embracing technology to deliver scalable social solutions
The last panel I joined was entitled “The real innovators: using science and technology for social progress” – a great way to end the conference by looking into the future. Technology is an increasingly powerful tool to improve access and reduce the cost of achieving social impact, as well as reducing the time to achieve scale.
Chaired by Paul Miller, a partner at Bethnal Green Ventures, the panel featured 5 impressive startups that leverage technology to achieve social impact, including
• Ecosia: a search engine that donates 80% of its revenue to plant trees
• Gravity Light: a light powered solely by gravity
• Desolenator: a solar powered desolenator for household use
• Do Nation: an online platform to help individuals commit to behaviour change
• Walacea: a crowdfunding platform for scientific research
And if you think you are too old or too technologically challenged to embrace technology, I have met the Founder of If Everyone Cares. She’s a self-proclaimed “Grandma in Tech” who is building a location based online directory for all social services in the UK!
Managing hype and stay grounded
In the words of Bugg-Levine, the world of impact investing has “the highest ratio of words spoken in comparison to deals done”. Amidst of all the positive progress made, he warned practitioners to be wary of the 5 dangers, including “futility, expediency, timidity, comfort and self righteousness”. Rodney Irwin, the managing director of World Business Council for Sustainable Development, advised fellow practitioners to “stay humble and keep it real based on metrics”.
Perhaps one of the best ways to stay grounded is to remind ourselves of the real motivation behind all these trends and actions – they are based on real needs and urgent issues. Vimlendu Jha, the founder of Swechha in India, called upon the audience to stay close to the ground: “All these discussions are driven by men, but the most deprived and affected are often women and youth” – a note for all of us.
The Skoll Centre’s Rebecca Moore gives us a wrap-up from LAUNCH 2015: Social Impact Careers Conference hosted at the School on 6th May.
“For many of us, the idea of a ‘career path’ first came on the radar the same time that people started telling us about direction (we should get some) and purpose (we should have some). The problem is that some career paths are clearer than others and a route into or through a socially impactful career can be one of the hardest to navigate.
How do you find your niche? Who can you ask? Where the heck is the Careers Handbook on the issue? (Spoiler: there isn’t one). These types of questions were at the heart of LAUNCH 2015: Saïd Business School’s own social impact careers conference, jointly hosted by the Careers Centre and the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship. On 6th May, over 150 students and professionals gathered with a swathe of sector specialists for an afternoon of knowledge sharing and straight-talking advice.
Right from the beginning of the conference, LAUNCH highlighted the wide array of career choices available in the social impact space. Denise Hearne, a current MBA student at SBS, noted that the real achievement of the day was its diversity of panellists and attendees. Denise commented,
Having 6 different streams with everything from social finance, diverse paths to impact, consulting, and social entrepreneurship gave a great broad-sweeping overview of the many paths to take within the sector.”
Not only were the topics and attendees diverse, but the speakers’ routes into their current careers were often meandering and inspirational. One particular highlight was the lively debate that took place at the ‘Diverse paths for global impact’ session, where a varied team of panellists discussed their individual roads to creating positive change in the world. Jean Pierre Mustier described his unconventional route into impact investing and emphasised the need for young people to try as many things out as possible. TV Broadcaster June Sarpong highlighted the use of celebrity wattage to shine light on important issues and described how her career has earned her an MBE for her work in broadcasting and charity. LAUNCH offered speakers a safe place to talk candidly about their initial career motivations, about the catalyst for change they had experienced and about how they made those changes to get where they are today.
The day was finished off brilliantly with an innovative ‘pitch-a-position’ style networking event. Anyone with a job or opportunity to offer took to the stage and pitched it for one minute – afterwards, anyone interested could approach them and ask questions over a much-needed beer. The drinks and canapés served at the finale of the event also offered attendees a welcome opportunity to network and mingle with the speakers they had been hearing from throughout the day. As MBA student Andrea Warriner put it,
I was amazed by the quality of the people I had the opportunity to interact with one-on-one, and the relevance of those people to my career aspirations.”
What stood out most about LAUNCH was its entrepreneurial spirit of open-mindedness and a recognition of the need for collaboration within the sector. There was also a positive appreciation that there is no single path, simply because there is no one destination called Most Socially Impactful. The choices are endless…and exciting. And LAUNCH 2015 was the perfect place to, well, launch yourself into those choices.”