800 ways to change the world

To hear his staff and colleagues tell it, co-founding eBay, which many would regard as enough achievement for one working life,  was just a means to an end for Jeff Skoll.   In an anecdote retailed in a pre-dinner address, an associate described how a young Jeff Skoll had announced that eBay — an enterprise his sceptical interlocutor had not yet heard of — would be a success. Once that occurred, he continued,  he intended to change the world. 

The now legendary success of eBay, of course, was to make Jeff Skoll extremely rich.  More than fifteen years later, changing the world  remains his mission.

It is an ambition that has been pursued throughout history with what could fairly be called a variety of methods: war, revolution, religious faith, non-violent citizens’ movements, government policy, multilateral action and philanthropy are only some of them. Here in Oxford this week,  the proposition is that it can be done through the marriage of philanthropic intent and business acumen. 

Jeff Skoll, who now chairs the Skoll Foundation, Participant Media and the Skoll Global Threats Fund, is the reason that some 800 delegates from around the world have gathered for the 8th Skoll World Forum, a noisy and exuberant three day event in which participants will chew over the intractable question of how to bring about systemic change, hoping that the relationships they form in the process will multiply the effect of their effort. It is, at its most basic, Skoll’s funding that enables the gathering. More to the point, though, delegates are invited because they exemplify the philosophy that the Skoll Foundation advances: that business methodology is an effective instrument to bring  sustainable and systemic improvement in disadvantaged lives. Is the whole idea, though, as one speaker asked, quoting a sceptical colleague, more than subsidised business with a social conscience?

It is a long way from a traditional take on charity, though most of the enterprises represented need either investment or philanthropy to get started, and many will not yield a conventional profit for years. They would certainly argue, however, that the social gain they generate has an economic value, and scattered among the delegates are representatives of funders and philanthropists looking for effective ways to invest their funds.  

The delegates are undoubtedly entrepreneurial, too, in the sense that they have either seen market opportunities where conventional business has not, or that they have brought an innovative — and hopefully scaleable– approach to bear on a situation that they have identified as an economic or social inhibitor. 

It would be hard to argue that the world has improved noticeably at the macro level over the eight years that the forum has been in operation. But on the evidence of the forum’s first day, at the grassroots, where many of the delegates operate, a ferment of creative energy is being brought to bear on problems that range from child poverty to HIV/AIDS, from juvenile delinquency to failing small scale farming in Africa or the lack of basic optician supplies to the world’s poor.

Ask them why they do what they do, rather than applying their business skills to the simple pursuit of profit, and there as many personal stories as there are delegates. For Thorkil Sonne, whose ambition is to create a million jobs worldwide for people with autism, the spur was highly personal — a diagnosis of autism for his youngest child and the understanding that brought him that his son unaided might never find a way to use his talents. He mortgaged his house to create an enterprise in which autistic people work in IT that has attracted international interest.  Some of the delegates are young business school graduates for whom conventional corporate life was ethically unattractive; others have travelled through a range of jobs until a moment of insight impelled to try their own experiment.   

There is, perhaps,  a slight note of impatience from the top: the overarching theme of this year’s forum is large scale change — the perennial business challenge of scaling up initial success without coming a cropper, here applied to the equally perennial challenge of a fairer, greener and more sustainable world. 

Among the questions which I shall be trying to answer in the course of the next few days, is how grassroots change can become systemic change without creating unintended consequences?  Systems, after all, are defined by many things, including political economy.  While everyone might agree that poor people should have access to affordable spectacles, systemic change can reveal violently competing visions. 

In an address to the opening plenary, Stephan Chambers, the chair of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, admitted that it was not clear what large scale social change meant.  "What we do know,"he said, "is that it is intentional, positive and important." He might also have added that where large scale change occurs, historians argue for decades about what brought it about.

Getting to whatever the desired destination might be raises new dilemmas as Ngaire Woods, professor of political economy at Oxford, pointed out. Commenting on the mutual absence of admiration between social entrepreneurs and the established powers of governments and multilateral organisations, she argued that governments and multilateral organisations were increasingly borrowing methods and approaches from social entrepreneurship.  That, she warned, had its own pitfalls: opening up participation in multilateral institutions could transform those who challenged the orthodoxies into stakeholders in the status quo; rebels against the system could become ardent defenders once they had a seat at the table, a transformation wearyingly familiar from the world of politics.

Social entrepreneurs, on the other hand, needed to be aware that scaling up to the ambition of systemic change brought questions of accountability into focus: governments were accountable to their electorates for the choices they made in spending health budgets, but who is accountable to whom for the allocation of resources in a single issue initiative, such as the fight against HIV/AIDS? 

Systemic change requires new bargains to be struck. What are they, and how and with whom are they to be negotiated?