Skoll Foundation


Jeff Skoll Keynote 2009 Skoll World Forum: “Urgency and Hope”

March 27, 2009 by

Remarks by Jeff Skoll delivered March 27, 2009 at the Skoll World Forum at Saïd Business School, the University of Oxford.

What an amazing few days we’ve shared here together.  Thank you, Soraya, for your insights and inspiration.  You have reminded us why we’re all here, doing what we do.  Thanks also to Lord Puttnam for his wisdom and to you, Pamela, you have almost survived your first Forum!  Congratulations.Over the last couple of days, we’ve been informed, we’ve been inspired, and we’ve been challenged. In some case, we’ve been frightened, and rightfully so. So, what can I add, in the final few minutes of this year’s Forum?

I can talk about the trip that Sally and I made to the Brazilian rainforest last year, but I’m not sure you would want to see video of us hiking through the jungle, set to a bossa nova beat.

But that trip did reinforce two issues that are extremely relevant today – urgency and hope.

Urgency is on an upward path. We have made some progress on big global challenges, but each passing day raises the stakes—and the global economic crisis makes it that much harder.

But hope is on an upward path too. After a long drought, we have the potential for significant U.S. engagement and leadership on critical social and environmental issues.

We are approaching an inflection point.  There are forces coming together – evolutionary and revolutionary – that are shaping how we will move forward, both in the field of social entrepreneurship and in social change more broadly.

Last month was the bicentennial of the birth of Charles Darwin.   There’s been a lot written about the impact of Darwin on science, society and religion. But there’s a perspective on Darwin and his work that provides an interesting parallel to where social entrepreneurship stands today.

Darwin took thirty years between the voyage of the Beagle and the publication of Origin of Species.  He was collecting samples, researching, testing his ideas.  The book created huge debates between the church and the scientists, not to mention the general public.  This debate went on for many years because the scientific explanation of exactly how physical variations were passed on from one generation to the next didn’t exist.  It took a revolutionary discovery in genetics in 1953 – the DNA double-helix – to provide the hard scientific evidence to support Darwin’s theory.   It took a revolutionary “exogenous” factor to fully validate Darwin’s theory.

A similar process is at play in social entrepreneurship.  Social entrepreneurship has existed for many years.  Florence Nightingale and Maria Montessori are “historical” social entrepreneurs.  The term was first used in academic literature in the 1960s and 70s and popularized by Bill Drayton, Charlie Leadbeater and others in the 1980s.  The Grameen Bank, YouthBuild, and Gram Vikas are all thirty years old, or more.  The field of social entrepreneurship has evolved, expanded and strengthened over these three decades.

Now, however, there is a revolutionary exogenous “shock” that could vault social entrepreneurship to new levels:  the economic crisis.  It could make social entrepreneurship truly break through into the mainstream.  Like the discovery of DNA did for the theory of evolution, the economic crisis could solidify social entrepreneurship as the most compelling model for lasting social change.

The economic crisis is forcing a rethink of traditional concepts of the role of corporations, government and social sector organizations.  It is leading to interesting new questions, not just by social scientists, but by business and government leaders.  Are incentives solely based on profit valid?  Can companies ignore the social and environmental impact of what they do and hope to succeed?  Is business as usual really the right business?

Clearly, the answer to this last question is “no”.  It can’t be business as usual.  While we don’t know exactly how the economic meltdown will play out, it is clear that social entrepreneurs are positioned to emerge from this crisis as not only survivors, but as leaders.  More on that later.

It is scary to look at the world of today, but we must.  There are a number of real threats to civilization that could render all of our work obsolete….and I’m not talking about in the long run, but in the course of a few years or a few decades.  I’d like to talk about five of them.

One of these threats is climate change.  There are many social entrepreneurs here doing important work on climate. Mindy Lubber and Ceres are enlisting the biggest names in corporate America and the financial sector to fight climate change.  Mark Plotkin and Liliana Madrigal of the Amazon Conversation Team and Martin von Hildebrand of Gaia Amazonas are making huge strides to preserve the rainforest.  Michael Eckhart of ACORE and Mathis Wackernagel and Susan Burns of Global Footprint Network are approaching climate change with research, networks and advocacy.

But the scope of the challenge is huge and the urgency is – literally – hanging over our heads.  Many scientists say that we have already reached a tipping point where at best we can only limit the extent of the climate damage.  We need to consider additional ways to make a difference – via direct action, through policy, or through education.   In this vein, the Skoll Foundation is supporting the Alliance for Climate Protection in its campaign to make climate change a central issue in the American public debate.  We’ve also announced this week a partnership with Avina to protect the Amazon rain forest.  But the challenge is vast.

Water scarcity is another urgent threat.  Nearly one billion people do not have access to clean drinking water, and some two and a half billion don’t have adequate sanitation. This leads to disease and death, and it’s predominantly children who are impacted.

I’m encouraged by the work of people like Gary White of Water Partners International, who is bringing together microfinance and water delivery in an attempt to address this challenge.  The Pacific Institute’s  Peter Gleick is promoting a comprehensive approach to water use.  Ceres has joined the Pacific Institute in linking water resources and climate change.

But we continue to fall behind globally.  Rapid industrialization, increased urbanization and climate change are making the problem ever more difficult.

These major challenges aren’t limited to the environmental arena.  Others are political.  The threat of nuclear proliferation – despite treaties, export controls, and technical hurdles – is serious and growing.  Bruce Blair of the World Security Institute, is doing great work through the Global Zero initiative to raise the profile of this issue.  But with countries like N. Korea and Iran gaining weapons and Russia announcing plans to re-arm, none of us are safe.

The Middle East also continues to be a flashpoint for conflict, with the potential to embroil not just regional players, but the whole world.   Support for regional groups like the Peaceworks Foundation, Search for Common Ground, Ecopeace and Injaz Al Arab is important, but we still need to do more.

And there’s another scary threat out there:  pandemics.  Pandemics ignore politics, policies and pundits.  How viruses jump from animals to humans isn’t well understood.  So the work of people like Nathan Wolfe of the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative, who’s doing research to identify potential pandemics before they expand, is vitally important.

We need to confront these urgent threats – climate change, water scarcity, nuclear proliferation, Middle East conflict and pandemics – to protect the world of today long enough to build the world of tomorrow.

The economic crisis, of course, complicates all this.  Many social sector organizations that depend on donations will see their funding hit.  There will be fewer resources to solve ever greater problems.

But this crisis also creates opportunity.   I looked up crisis in the dictionary and one of the definitions is “an unstable or crucial time in which a decisive change is impending.”  By any indication, we’re in a crisis.  But note that crisis implies not just instability, but decisive change.

The entire world is in the process of maximizing the efficient use of resources.   This isn’t a short term tactical move.  It’s a change at the global DNA level.  The crisis has made it clear that a world of exponentially increasing consumption isn’t viable.  The ability to do more with less will become an evolutionary advantage.  Those species that are good at this will thrive.

Social entrepreneurs are defined by their creativity, including their ability to produce results with limited resources.  They are a keystone species in the social change architecture.  They have a disproportionate effect on the world relative to their numbers.  Their role – and importance – will only be strengthened by the economic crisis.

This isn’t just speculation on my part.  Some social entrepreneurs have already seen increased resources flowing their way.  YouthBuild USA, run by social entrepreneur Dorothy Stoneman, tackles core issues facing low-income communities – housing, education, employment, crime prevention, and leadership development.  YouthBuild saw a $50M increase in funding written into the recent stimulus package passed in the U.S.

Why will social entrepreneurs lead the way in the current downturn?  Producing results with limited resources is all about leverage.

Leverage is about looking at your assets and figuring out which asset can best be used to meet specific objectives.  And social entrepreneurs are masters of leverage.

For example, one source of leverage that I find works well is storytelling through film.  Few things can rival movies for both inspiring and engaging large numbers of people.  There is no question that “An Inconvenient Truth” helped fundamentally change the conversation around climate all around the world.  It helped Al Gore leverage his message to much bigger effect.

Obviously, not everyone has access to film, but a number of social entrepreneurs are using video and film to very good effect, helping them tell their story more broadly.  It’s something we support at the Skoll Foundation through our Uncommon Heroes short films – some of which you’ve seen here this week – and with our partnerships with the Sundance Institute, PBS and others.  Storytelling is great leverage.

Another way to maximize leverage is through collaboration.  In tough times, social entrepreneurs can gain a lot from working with each other.

For example, Paul Farmer of Partners in Health is talking with Matt Flannery and Premal Shaw about using Kiva to support community workers in Rwanda and elsewhere.  Camfed and the Global Footprint Network are drawing a closer link between female education and the environment.  Camfed also has been working with Kickstart, IDE-India, Global Footprint Network and others to teach rural women in Zambia.  Fundacion Paraguaya has become a microfinance partner for Kiva…. The list goes on.

Media and partnerships are two great tools for leverage and I suspect you have come up with many more in the last few days.

We’re in a unique period of history.  We face big challenges, and we need big ideas.  Many of you are delivering these big ideas.  Social entrepreneurs are the antidote to the current pessimism.  People need good stories in times like this.  You have the best stories.

We arrived in Oxford this week in the grips of financial despair and mounting social unease.  The challenges loom large before us.  Yet, as always, we leave Oxford with a renewed sense of what’s possible.  Last year, I claimed that social entrepreneurs had arrived.  Now it’s time for the next step in our evolution.  It’s time for social entrepreneurs to lead.  It is time for social entrepreneurs to step up and show the way for the rest of the world.

After all, as the economist Paul Romer famously stated, “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”

Thank you.

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