Skoll at Oxford: A Changing Time for Philanthropy -- Part 1

OnPhilanthropy's Tom Watson was invited to blog from the Skoll World Forum which recently gathered the globe's leading social entrepreurs at Oxford. Here is his Part 1 of his report:

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."

Leveraging Resources

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, 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.

Tom Watson

Posted at 7:21 AM, Apr 11, 2007 in Social Entreprenuers | Permalink | Comment