Closing the Gap – a series of Oxford University postgraduate student insights to the Skoll World Forum 2018
Kim Scriven, 2017-18 MBA at Saïd Business School, covers the Skoll World Forum session on ‘Proximate Philanthropy: Exploring Power and Privilege in the Funding Landscape’
The focus of this year’s forum is the Power of Proximity, and this was the starting point for a panel that cut to the heart of one of the central relationships in social entrepreneurship: that between those who seek to drive change in the world and those with the means to fund and support such action.
Kicking off the panel, moderator Pia Infante of the Whitman Institute brought the assembled audience back to the inspiring words of Bryan Stevenson in Tuesday’s opening plenary, arguing that ‘Proximate Philanthropy’ was essential for enabling the “bold, inconvenient and uncomfortable acts” that our moment requires. Achieving such bold action will entail that discomfort and inconvenience be shared by funders, not just felt by social entrepreneurs on the frontlines of social change.
But what exactly does proximity mean in the relationship between funders and social entrepreneurs? Jessamyn Shams-Lau, Executive Director of the Peery Foundation, highlighted efforts to foster interactions that strengthen a grantee’s ability to achieve their outcomes. These efforts are built around five core practices, starting from the internal culture of the funder, using this to actively research and pursue opportunities and provide unrestricted, multiyear funding, backed by tailored additional support. Underpinning this is the need for accountability and active communication between funder and grantee.
Vu Le of NonprofitAF.com was more prosaic: sometimes proximity is simple and physical – about donors being prepared to leave their comfortable offices and meet people working where the problems are. Parminder Vir argued forcefully that proximity is not simply about attitude or place, it is about the authenticity that comes from being born out of the world in which a funder focuses its action – with an appreciation of context, place, and history. As CEO of the Tony Elumelu Foundation, for Vir this means being based in Lagos, Nigeria, and working with an awareness of the ongoing impact of colonialism on the country, the continent, and its people.
And this cuts to the heart of the whole debate – in the room and beyond – that philanthropy and efforts to foster social change are inescapably embedded in systems of power and politics. In the case of funders, this inherently means that they have the greater power and agency in their relationships with grantees and recipients. These power imbalances are heightened when they reflect broader social inequalities and injustices – be they about race, sex or history.
At times the conversation focused on familiar ground in debates about how best to fund social action. Is the broad approach of the Tony Elumelu Foundation – generating tens of thousands of applications from as far and wide as possible – more equitable than a more targeted and active sourcing approach pursued by the Peery Foundation? Should funders seek short but tailored applications, or just accept a standard pitch?
The answers to such questions will always be context specific and there can be no one-size-fits-all approach to proximate philanthropy. More importantly, to get too focused on these details risks missing the broader point – that funders need not just to be aware of their position of power and privilege, but continually seek to recognise and address the implications.
And this brings us back to the discomfort and inconvenience that we will need to confront. Vu Le decried the fact that “the way we treat non-profits is the same as the way we treat poor people in society’ too often lacking the trust and empathy needed to build meaningful and sustainable relationships that can lead to impact. This is perhaps the crux of the proximity challenge in philanthropy, bridging inequalities in power and resource by taking the time and inconvenience to foster relationship built on mutual respect and understanding.
Closing the Gap – a series of Oxford University postgraduate student insights to the Skoll World Forum 2018
2017-18 MBA at Saïd Business School, Shruthi Vijayakumar, covers the Skoll World Forum session ‘Creative Tensions: Proximity and Power’.
We live in a world that is increasingly fractured and divided. The rise of populism has seen ‘othering’ and fear damage our social fabric and it has never been more important to have empathy for one another. It’s from understanding each other that we can begin to create a path forward together.
Early Tuesday morning 40 odd delegates had a powerful experience of just this, at a workshop titled ‘Creative Tensions’ led by the team at IDEO. In their own words, Creative Tensions is a format for collective conversation, expressed in movement, wherein participants reveal where they stand on an issue by where they stand in the room. The session left us appreciative of each other’s different perspectives, questioning some of our own views and just a little more empathetic and aware.
The facilitators posed a series of prompts, of seemingly opposing ideas, and we were asked to take a stance and share why we stood where we stood. Some of the prompts are as follows:
“Power is taken” <> “Power is given”
“We are the people we serve” <> “We are serving others”
“Money enables” <> “Money complicates”
“Failure is essential” <> “Failure is not an option”
With words and context open to our own interpretation, there was a wide variety of stances on each issue, and what began to unfold as we explained the positions we took was fascinating. Take the second prompt above. “We are the people we serve” vs “We are serving others”. One participant who stood on the far left shared that “We have to be the people we serve. By serving ‘others’ are we not creating more otherness?” From the other end of the room someone responded “We can’t be the people we serve. We have to acknowledge that there are some differences and distinctions between us. Some of us are more privileged.” Closer to the middle, but still on the left, a young student shared “We benefit from serving others, we feel good, so in effect we are serving ourselves”. And so the conversation continued.
One of the most beautiful things to witness was seeing people hear each other’s perspectives, question their own views, and physically move along the continuum to show how their perspective had changed. None of our positions were static and as the conversation progressed we shifted where we stood in the room – a sign of not just hearing, but far deeper listening and suspended judgement.
So what can we learn from this process?
The issue often lies in how we define terms. Each of us has our own interpretation of many of these concepts such as power, service, and failure. In sharing what these words mean to us and how we interpret these issues, much shared understanding can be created. Take the prompt “Failure is essential” vs “Failure is not an option”. Whilst one person saw failure as the only path to success and to be embraced in tackling wicked problems such as climate change, another person stood on the other end of the room saying “failure in addressing climate change is not an option, we have to get there”. Through dialogue we discovered that despite positions appearing different on the surface due to our interpretations of these terms, we shared a much deeper and common vision. Be it around a board room, a team meeting, engaging with customers, beneficiaries or funders, it can be powerful to take a moment to understand where someone comes from and to see how the language we use might mean something different to them.
Secondly, our ability to see possibility depends on the quality of our listening. If we can suspend our judgements, and be truly curious about what another has to say, only then will our own perception be enhanced and our views evolve, as was seen with people moving positions as the conversation unfolded. Deep listening is essential for us to see new paths and possibilities to achieve our desired future. This requires each of to be present, open minded and truly value and listen to one another.
Closing the Gap – a series of Oxford University postgraduate student insights to the Skoll World Forum 2018
Aaron Bartnick, Skoll Scholar and 2017-18 MBA at Saïd Business School, reports on the Skoll World Forum session ‘Democracy in Crisis? Populism, Polarization, and Civic Engagement’.
The 2018 Skoll World Forum is a celebration of proximity. But could this proximity–proximity of people, of ideas, of cultures–actually be the root cause of so many of our problems?
That was the provocative opening to one of the Forum’s most anticipated panels: “Democracy in Crisis? Populism, Polarization, and Civic Engagement,” moderated by New America President and CEO Ann-Marie Slaughter and featuring Obama Foundation CEO David Simas, former South African Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool, and Turkish journalist Ece Temelkuran.
Despite living in the most complex era in human history, we often divide our worlds into black and white. For Forum attendees, that tends to mean that things like pluralism and proximity are good, and populism and nativism are bad. But there are more than a few shades of grey to each of these phenomena. Popular movements can both take down despots in Tunisia and install them in Hungary. And pluralism can make us both richer and more uncomfortable than ever before. “We love the mobility of capital and goods,” Rasool explains, “but we don’t know what to do with the mobility of people.”
Populists have found their answer. Shut down the borders, villianize the immigrants and elites, and make [insert country here] great again. It is a compelling story, argues Temelkuran. It has a good guy (a nostalgia-tinged version of our triumphant past), a bad guy (the elites that have always kept us down and the new people who have aligned with them), and a clear path for the good to triumph over the bad.
What is the democrats’ answer? “Populists have a compelling story,” challenges Temelkuran, “and we are trying to beat it with a PowerPoint.”
That, perhaps, is why we are asking if democracy is in crisis. It is not because democratic governments are in retreat. Forty years ago, there were nearly three times as many authoritarian regimes as democratic ones. Today, it is nearly five-to-one in favor of democracies. Democratic institutions remain intact. Representative governments and independent judiciaries are not being disbanded in waves around the globe, though they have come under alarming threat in several countries that were once considered on the road to democracy, most notably Temelkuran’s own Turkey.
But what is in crisis is the democratic story. Individuals, not institutions, make decisions. And individuals, Simas reminds us, make decisions based on stories. In the United States, voters who twice supported Barack Obama and then flipped to Donald Trump were responding to a story, Simas argues, which was built by the Obama Democrats and then adopted by the Trump populists. Both ran as outsiders seeking to subvert an unjust system and restore power to the people. Neither’s motivation was viewed as particularly partisan. And the aspirational desire for “hope and change” that defined Obama’s first presidential campaign morphed, after eight years of mixed satisfaction, into a call for confrontation in the form of “drain the swamp.”
What, then, is democracy’s new story? If it is a cost-benefit analysis clearly showing that the benefits of free trade and borders outweighs their associated pains, Rasool thinks we are sunk. “The middle ground can’t be boring,” he argues, “when we’re fighting for our survival.”
Instead, it is up to those who wring their hands at the current challenges to democracy to rise up with an affirmative case for its defense. If democracy is the ultimate expression of individual freedom, then let us say so. If pluralism makes us more competitive and successful, then let us say so. And if we genuinely believe that there is a place for everyone in this new interconnected and competitive world, then let us prove it.
Populists have their story. It is time for the would-be defenders of democracy to tell theirs.
Kevin Duco Warner is a 2017-18 Skoll Scholar on the Oxford MBA. Focused on the social impact of food, he has worked to develop market-driven solutions to climate change through the advancement of the local food movement. Kevin shares the story of how he came to pursue a business degree.
I didn’t know that I was an entrepreneur. Heck, I couldn’t even spell the word entrepreneur consistently until about 4 months ago (it’s got that special French characteristic of having more vowels than seems reasonable). Fortunately for me, it turns out you can embody the ideals of an entrepreneur without actually realizing it.
What I have always been is curious. My thirst for knowledge has only been matched by my desire to make the world a better place. This ideal of being simultaneously thoughtful and impactful has led me down a somewhat circuitous path to Oxford, but I have found that following passion leads to unparalleled opportunities.
I have worked at my family’s food hub, Fair Shares, for the last 8 years. We contract with local farmers to source seasonal food and distribute it for 48 weeks each year to consumers in Saint Louis, Missouri. Fair Shares operates as a for-profit company utilizing the buying power of our large, local customer base as a grassroots tool for social and environmental change.
Before Fair Shares started, area farmers faced limited opportunities in getting their products to market, and consumers encountered multiple obstacles in accessing sustainably-grown food. The Saint Louis growing region allows for production for much of the year, but in the mid-2000s farmers’ markets ran for only 5 months per year, and offered producers meager financial rewards. Fair Shares created a model that aggregates the food from over 60 farmers into shares marketed directly to consumers. Combining the bounty of many producers allows us to offer greater diversity to our customers while supporting small farmers who have committed to low-carbon growing practices.
The beauty of working for Fair Shares is that it has given me the flexibility to follow my curiosity focused through the lens of a love for food.
About 4 years ago I started an organic corn tortilla company after teaching myself how to nixtamalize local field corn at home (I won’t get into it here, but the history of nixtamalization as the Aztec’s solution to pellagra is fascinating – worth a read on wikipedia!). I was not happy with the inconsistent results of pressing each tortilla by hand, but that was the only realistic option for a home cook. I realized that I needed a commercial grade tortilla machine if I was ever going to get consistent results. I started La Tortilla Buena because it was the only way to rationalize to my wife that importing a $2000 tortilla machine from Mexico was a good idea. Despite any real business acumen, my tortillas were quickly stocked by a number of small groceries, restaurants, and even a school lunch program. I attribute this success to the passion I had for the process of making the product.
Living in a very urban area spurred an interest in edible landscaping and urban homesteading. What started with a raspberry bush and some basic herbs progressed to harvesting homegrown saffron and espaliering two pear trees on a privacy fence. This knowledge, gained through doing, brought on opportunities to consult on urban agriculture projects and to teach cooking classes with local chefs. I even got to teach an heirloom apple grafting class with a local apple farmer.
So why uproot my life to move to Oxford? Why get an MBA?
I wanted to see my career, focused on impact through food, transition from local and regional, to national and global in scale, but I couldn’t find a clear path. I knew I needed more formal education, but struggled in finding a field that felt like the right fit.
My intention was to stay in the business world, but I was focused on policy and public administration degrees because they carried an underlying focus on social good. Most business programs lacked an ethos that resonated with me; that is, until I found the Skoll Centre at Oxford Saïd.
No other institution is driving the social impact space in a setting as powerful as Oxford. It is evident that the mission of the Skoll Centre is directly influencing Oxford Saïd’s approach to business education.
The process of being awarded the Skoll Scholarship was a whirlwind. It changed the trajectory of my life. In a matter of a few months I went from toting vegetables around an uninsulated warehouse in Saint Louis to walking the hallowed streets of Oxford in formal academic dress robes. To say that being at Oxford is a humbling experience is an understatement.
Schrödinger locked his cat in a box at his home on Northmoor Road, a 5 minute walk from my house. Tolkien wrote the Lord of the Rings in the house next door to Schrödinger. Radiohead played their first concert at the pub at the end of my street. It is absurd how many titans of western thought operated within a mile of my house in Oxford.
My intention when I began a career in good food was never very concrete. I realize now that there was a centralized theme in the work: namely, changing the way people eat. But it required a whole lot of ‘doing’ before I could fully quantify it. It was not until I applied to Oxford that I really went through the process of self-assessment required to solidify my personal mission. I am confident that my time spent studying for an MBA as a Skoll Scholar will give me the tools to further succeed in my endeavors regardless of whether or not I can spell entrepreneur.
Nikhil Dugal is a 2017-18 Skoll Scholar on the Oxford MBA. He’s a social entrepreneur working in the field of environmental sustainability, specifically towards establishing a circular economy. Here, Nikhil shares his story and inspiration up to becoming an Oxford Scholar.
My journey leading up to Saïd Business School has always been guided by one principle, to put the impact of the work I’m doing first, before anything else.
My journey started in 2014 when I had been working at a development economics research center in India for about two years. As a researcher, I became increasingly frustrated from working on multi-year, multi-million dollar projects that repeatedly unpacked major social challenges, without actually pairing them to actionable policy insights that could create change. It became clear that I enjoyed a more hands-on approach, and wanted take part in changing the problems I was working on. I set out to find opportunities to use what I’d learned to become part of building solutions myself.
While in college at New York University, I had taken a class on social entrepreneurship that first introduced me to the idea of establishing a business-for-good. I was immediately intrigued by the concept of a business designed to address a social or environmental problem, versus the traditional mode of CSR, which engages in philanthropy out of a percentage of profits made from the unsustainable systems themselves. This new breed of social –business instead leverages market-forces to implement change, without the constraint of relying on funding for their entire life-cycle.
It wasn’t long after first getting excited about social enterprise that I met a friend who had been inspired by the idea of repurposing shipping containers into infrastructure – and his inspiration really got me thinking. Having worked in the development sector, I understood there was an unmet need for organizations working on rented land, running operations in remote areas. I was also interested in working in the waste management space. I proposed that we focus on his expertise in manufacturing, and use my previous experience to start a company that provides custom container infrastructure to organizations in rural and urban India.
Containers retired from use at a yard in Uttar Pradesh
Over the past two years, we’ve built a company that repurposes once unusable materials into beautiful classrooms, workspaces and more, anywhere in India. We provide an end-to-end service to any organization looking to build temporary infrastructure. Our facilities help up-cycle shipping containers that are over 20 years old and retired from use.
We’ve built a list of vendors who provide construction inputs made from waste, such as wall paneling made from Tetra-pak waste cartons or sustainably sourced wood, insulation made from PET bottles, and roofing sheets made from recycled plastic and aluminum. These are offered as a package to our clients, for each of whom we design a custom facility as per their requirement. We also offer off-grid solutions including solar-panels and dry-toilets.
The interior of this facility is made from Tetra-pak Board
At Aadhan Infrastructure, we’ve helped recycle over 25 tons of steel, and built a diverse range of infrastructure including skill training classrooms for government programs, training facilities for rural healthcare workers, and even furniture showrooms for private companies. Over 400 children from disadvantaged communities have accessed skill training in rural Uttar Pradesh due to our classroom. We’ve also won grant funding, business competitions and were featured on national television.
Carrying out an inspection before dispatch
Why the Oxford MBA?
Despite our small and growing success in India, I feel there is so much more I need to learn in order to grow the company’s impact across India. We have faced innumerable challenges including an inability to scale up our work with the government, an inability to raise equity funding, the lack of an established market and low trust in the new building technology. I was able to receive significant peer support from organizations such as Unltd. Delhi; however, I realized I needed to build my skillset in order to successfully be able to run the business and change our model in order to scale up the impact of our work.
Coming from a background in economics and math, I wanted to study business in a place that was focused on supporting social entrepreneurs, and actively involved in the changing narrative on the nature of business. Due to this reason, I had a very specific list of MBA programs. Each one was a one-year program, focused on entrepreneurship, with a significant focus on social enterprise. Saïd Business School was at the top of this list, especially due to the countless resources they offer to social entrepreneurs and the presence of the Skoll Centre.
I had been looking at the scholarship for over a year, and once I knew I met the criteria, I reached out to a previous scholar from India, who was incredibly kind and helpful. It immediately gave me a sense of the community here and motivated me further to apply. One year later, I’m sitting in Oxford, and have been blessed to receive a Skoll Scholarship.
This opportunity has enabled me to pursue my goals and continue to engage in my mission. There are truly few organizations in the world that provide such significant support to social entrepreneurs, with only the intention of encouraging them to lead an impactful career. There is no chance that I would have had access to such a great program without the help of the Scholarship and I look forward to using every opportunity I get over the next year to learn as much as possible.
Over the next year I plan to use all the resources we are offered here, including programs such as Map the System, Skoll Academy and Skoll Venture Awards to refine the mission of my organization and explore levers for change to help us scale our impact. I’ve had the opportunity to attend a few sessions at the Skoll Academy already, and am extremely impressed with the program the Centre has been able to put together as an alternative to the Consulting Development Program and the Finance Lab offered to the rest of the MBA class.
I’ve also had the amazing opportunity to meet my peers, each of whom is as accomplished as the next. They are the greatest resource we have here, and they come from all over the globe, with about a third from the development sector. Although they’re from a diverse background, what they have in common is a sense of collaboration and community, and I feel certain I’ll learn more from them than I can begin to describe here and now.
Sandra Fisher-Martins is a 2017-18 Skoll Scholar on the Oxford MBA. She is also a plain-language activist and entrepreneur. Sandra shares the candid truth about leaving her 10 year old organisation to pursue an Oxford MBA.
“Can you read this letter for me?”, asked Mr. Domingos, the office center caretaker.
We stood by his desk and he watched while I sifted through it. I explained that the letter was in fact a surgery voucher from the Ministry of Health paying for a surgery in a private hospital of his choice. His smile was a mix of relief and disbelief.
“I had thrown it in the bin. Then I remembered you telling me about your job the other day…”
Mr. Domingos had his first job at the age of five and taught himself to read as an adult. He enjoyed the sports newspaper, but struggled with official letters, forms and pretty much everything else. His life story was unique, but his experience of depending on others to access crucial information was not uncommon. Nearly 4 in 5 Portuguese are ‘functionally illiterate’, which means that their reading skills are insufficient to meet the demands of daily life.
I founded Português Claro (‘Plain Portuguese’) in 2007 because I was appalled by the gap between the average literacy skills of our citizens and the complexity of the documents we had to read to get on with our lives. From electricity bills to insurance contracts, from bank statements to government websites, everything was riddled with jargon and legalese. How could anyone make informed choices? How could anyone know and act on their rights?
Sandra and the Claro team at work
Sandra delivered a talk at Productized 2016
The low literacy problem is an important and complex battle to wage, requiring massive investments in education. I was too frustrated to wait. Seeing an opportunity to meet the needs of today’s Portuguese adults, I set out to persuade businesses and government agencies to simplify the way they communicated with the public.
Having little business experience, during my first years at Claro I used to dispel the flashes of self-doubt with fantasies of getting the Skoll Scholarship and picking up, in one swift year, everything I would need to run a successful social venture.
I never applied. I was too busy running the business and learning by trial-and-error to be a plain-language expert, a salesperson, an accountant, a project manager, a recruiter, a team leader, and a CEO. Stopping for a year was impossible.
And then, after nearly a decade of challenges and growth, Claro hit a sudden wall. A change in government had led to a sharp decline in private and public investment and our sales were plummeting. Faced with the possibility of having to close the company, I started questioning the sustainability of the change we had created over time. Without Claro to provide plain-language services, would these organizations revert back to their old ways?
As my doubts grew, it became clear that I’d allowed myself to be sucked into the day-to-day of running a social enterprise when the real challenge was in creating sustainable systemic change. It was time to stop and have a rethink.
I went back to the Skoll Scholarship and the Centre had added more programming focused on system change. So I decided to apply. This time I wasn’t looking for tools to run a business. I was looking for a space for reflection within a world-class network of systems thinkers, social entrepreneurs and researchers.
It is now Week 4 in Michaelmas (in plain language, that’s the beginning of November) and although the MBA has barely started so much has happened. This is a high-frequency learning environment, with daily opportunities to engage in mind-expanding conversations. Today I met with Patrick to learn about his experience running an impact investment fund in Peru. Last night I explored with Emily the systemic consequences of an ill-conceived agricultural investment in Ghana. Through this exposure to diverse experiences and approaches, my initial questions have evolved and unexpected themes — like ‘identity’ — have surfaced. Clearly, this journey has just begun. I am eager to see where it takes me.