Skoll Foundation


Sally Osberg in MIT Innovations, Sept. 2009: “Framing the Change and Changing the Frame: A New Role for Social Entrepreneurs”

September 10, 2009 by

In Sept. 2009, the MIT Journal Innovations published a special edition on the 2009 Skoll World Forum with lead essays by President Jimmy Carter and Paul Farmer. Sally Osberg’s introduction to the conference also served as the introduction to this special edition of Innovations.

Framing the Change and Changing the Frame: A New Role for Social Entrepreneurs

The year 2009 dawns with more optimism, and more despair, than we’ve seen in generations. Although he was writing exactly 150 years ago, Charles Dickens’s famed introduction to The Tale of Two Cities feels spot on today: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

The despair is evident. The collapse of the financial system, rising unemployment, foreclosures, comparisons to the Great Depression. Paralleling the financial setbacks, the planet continues to send clear signals of pain—melting polar icecaps, destructive storms, drought. Cholera, a disease we can control, takes advantage of a political vacuum and humanitarian disaster to surge in Zimbabwe. Terrorists strike in Mumbai, exacerbating tension in a region that has historically been a flashpoint for state-to-state conflict. Israelis and Palestinians seem, sadly, no closer to peace than they were decades ago. Iran threatens to go nuclear.

Yet, against this backdrop, there is also a strong sense of optimism. In the U.S., the election of an African-American President signals changes in the social, political and economic realities that many thought they’d never see in their lifetime. The generational change President Obama embodies also brings optimism, as youth in America re-engage in the political process and baby boomers see “one of their own” take charge.

Internationally, the President’s ethnic background and world view promises a more collaborative approach to foreign policy, one based to a greater extent on shared global interests than the unilateral exertion of power.

Nor is this optimism limited solely to U.S. presidential politics. The concept of service, of individual citizens taking the time to do something to promote not just their own wealth, but the common wealth, is gaining traction. A growing number of individuals search for meaning in what they do. People recognize that the world is not how they’d like it, and they want to help change it.

Social change hasn’t always been so democratic. 200 years ago, it was a royal prerogative. In 1808, Great Britain celebrated the 50th anniversary—the Grand Jubilee—of King George III’s ascension to the throne.

The King chose to celebrate the occasion in a unique way. He gave 2,000 pounds out of his personal dowry to the Society for the Relief of Persons to help more than 7,000 people pay their debts. The reason was simple: he had come to believe that the legacy of past debts should not be a burden on future generations.

The democratization of social change over the last 200 years is welcome, but the basic challenge remains. In fact, as the world’s population has grown, the challenge has become more acute. How do we ensure that what we do today doesn’t make tomorrow worse? How do we prevent the legacy of past transgressions—on the environment, on economic development, on education, on peace— becoming a burden to future generations?

In the U.S., the huge financial bailouts, with the concomitant rise in the national debt, have placed the issue of “paying now or paying later” squarely on the table. The concept of national debt—particularly a rapidly growing national debt—puts intergenerational equity firmly in the public debate.

But this doesn’t stop at finance. Global warming, persistent poverty, ongoing conflict around the globe, resurgent diseases; all these issues also raise questions of intergenerational equity. Things we do—or don’t do—today will have a huge impact on our children, and on their children. None more so than on climate change, which, if not effectively addressed, becomes a question not of intergenerational equity, but survival.

Looking forward for many of these issues, the trends are decidedly negative. It’s not okay to just keep doing what we’re doing and hope to muddle through. We can’t pass the buck; there is no longer a buck to pass. We need to change.

Change was arguably the most used word of the year in 2008, thanks to the U.S. elections. President Obama rode the promise of change—“Change we can believe in”—to the White House. His election is being trumpeted as a mandate for change. But what kind of change can we believe in? It’s a good question.

Change is believable if it is sustainable. Change is believable if it creates a new, positive equilibrium that becomes self-perpetuating. Change that solves the root of the problem, rather than its symptoms, is credible change. This is where social entrepreneurs come in. Social entrepreneurs are innovative people who are delivering change at the root of the problem, change that transforms unfair equilibria into better, sustainable balances. Social entrepreneurs help reduce concerns over intergenerational equity by creating a planet where we don’t pass ecological or social debt on to our children.

Social entrepreneurs don’t have a monopoly on believable change. Social movements, enlightened business and progressive governments can also drive believable change. But the social entrepreneur takes a unique approach.

Social entrepreneurs look for opportunities to create social value, uncover the best approaches for realizing those opportunities, and build “social capital.” We can pass on that capital as inheritance, rather than debt, to the next generation.

Five years ago, both the term and the concept of social entrepreneur were rare. As denizens of Silicon Valley, we turn to Google hits as a barometer, albeit unscientific, of progress. In 2006, a search for “social entrepreneur” returned 12,400 hits. In 2007, the same search got more than 100,000 hits. By the end of 2008: 7,500,000 hits.

In the span of just a few years, there has been an explosion of books, articles, television programs, and online networks celebrating and supporting social entrepreneurs. The world’s top business schools have launched programs and research centers dedicated to social entrepreneurship. Social entrepreneurs have been central players at the Clinton Global Initiative and the World Economic Forum.

They’ve won Nobel Peace Prizes. They’ve been recognized as MacArthur “Geniuses.” They’re advising heads of state and U.S. presidential candidates.

This has occurred alongside an explosion in non-governmental organizations (NGO) worldwide that are dedicated to seeking new solutions to our oldest problems. In Russia, we’ve gone from virtually no NGOs eight years ago to more than 400,000 today. In China, there are more than 280,000 registered, and twice that number not registered. In India, the number is over half a million. And in the United States, there are more than one million, more than half of which were started this decade.

All of these developments point to a deeper truth. Social entrepreneurs have achieved the crucial and all-too-elusive task of capturing the public’s imagination. But what’s the next chapter in this story? We believe it’s the ecosystem. More and more, social entrepreneurship is not only about the power of the brilliant individual. Increasingly, it is about the power of strategic partnerships—the coalitions that take the solutions social entrepreneurs envision and bring them to scale. This is the direction we’re headed—toward a new model of social change—of smarter, broader collaborations with businesses, governments, universities, and, of course, with each other.

It is no accident that, in recent years, the Nobel Peace Prize has often been awarded to collaborations between an individual and an institution. In 2007, it was Al Gore and the International Panel on Climate Change. Before that, it was Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank. And before that, it was Mohamed El Baradei and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

It often takes an individual to have the game-changing insight—to see what no one else has seen—to make the leap beyond what is known to what has only been imagined. But without institutions, even the most transformative ideas are unlikely to translate into real change.

And when we take that truth one step further and unite many institutions in strategic, multi-sectoral alliances—that’s when we see the full potential of brilliant ideas to change the world. This is the next step in our work—achieving this “community effect” wherever possible—whether it’s in fighting a disease, or opening schools, or devising new solutions for delivering clean water to people everywhere.

Several current examples of this kind of creative partnership show their promise for social change. One of the most exciting is the global fight against malaria. To fully appreciate today’s war on malaria, it’s important to know about another time the world tried to defeat this disease—the cautionary tale of Fred Soper. Fred Soper was the head of the Global Malaria Eradication Program in the 1930s and 1940s. He was fiercely determined in pursuit of a noble goal. One person described him as “the General Patton of entomology.” He passionately believed in his key idea, which was to deploy workers throughout the malarial world to kill mosquitoes with the help of an amazing new technology—a pesticide called DDT.

No one could ever doubt Fred Soper’s extraordinary commitment to his mission. But, like all truly tragic heroes, his greatest strength—that single-minded focus—became his downfall. Fred was sure that DDT was the silver bullet for defeating malaria. But then Rachel Carson wrote “The Silent Spring,” a book that revealed how DDT was causing a lot of environmental problems: it was killing birds and plants and contaminating the soil.

Public outcry grew. In 1972, the U.S. banned DDT. Other countries followed. Soon, public health officials in places where malaria had been nearly defeated began seeing an alarming rise in malarial mosquitoes. Infections increased, but by now many people had lost their acquired immunity to the malaria parasite. So infections skyrocketed, and they’ve stayed high ever since. Luckily, the world has learned from the lesson of Fred Soper. We have learned that the search for silver bullets is naïve. With issues as complex as malaria, it takes people working from many different angles. Today, we’ve taken up the mission of eradicating malaria again. But this time, we’re not putting all of our hopes in a single breakthrough technology. Instead, a broad coalition of groups is attacking malaria from on different fronts.

One of the more promising collaborations is a partnership between the Institute for One World Health, a company called Amyris, and a team at the University of California at Berkeley. They are working together to manufacture a synthetic version of the key component in anti-malarial compounds, called artemisinin. The process typically involves a rare Chinese herb. This team is using vats of e-Coli sugar water and then modifying bugs, which eat the sugar, and excrete artemisinin. They believe they’ll soon have it for 60 cents a dose, which lowers the cost dramatically, and will save an estimated 30 million lives a year.

On another front, the UN Foundation, the Methodist Church and the National Basketball Association in the U.S. have sent almost 2 million bed nets to Africa through the “Nothing But Nets” Campaign.

Governments around the world are also crafting national plans for fighting malaria. They are deploying public health workers throughout malarial regions to teach people the behaviors that can keep their children safe: sleeping under bed nets, staying inside after dark, cleaning up the trash that holds stagnant water.

Foundations, corporations, governments, churches, sports associations; each of these groups—and many others—have roles to play in this enormous mission, and through smart coordination, each group’s unique contribution is enhanced by the contributions of their partners.

We see similar coalitions around many issues, like the collaboration between the United Nations Foundation and dozens of leading investment banks and institutional investors, to factor carbon capture investments into financial decisions. Around the globe, there are innovative social entrepreneurs working to eliminate hunger, fight climate change, establish schools, and achieve equity for women.

Many entered these fields because they had a compelling idea and just couldn’t stop themselves from pursuing it—even if it meant disrupting their life and veering off onto a very different path. These ideas deserve to be celebrated. However, lasting change doesn’t happen because of a great idea, or an inspiring leader. It doesn’t even happen because of how hard people work for it. Lasting change happens when strong alliances unite to build networks to sustain change.

What is the equivalent of the modern global malaria alliance in education? In conflict resolution?  Institutional responsibility? Proliferation? What is the network of partners who can build up and build around an idea, to create an unstoppable force for change?

Answering this question may not be easy. It points to the difference between working for change and organizing for change—two distinct actions that require somewhat different skill sets. But the work we do together to organize alliances will be crucial for giving the best ideas the greatest impact. Partnerships are key to scale, and scale is key to impact. When we hesitate to scale up our solutions, the problems we face scale up in their complexity.

On many of the issues we face today, our biggest enemy is time. We are quickly reaching a tipping point—on climate change, certainly, and potentially other issues as well. It’s not too late to make change, but that clock has ticked a few minutes closer to midnight.

Returning to Dickens, we need a sense of urgency, because it is the worst of times in terms of the challenges we face. But we also need renewed optimism, because it is the best of times for innovation, for leadership, for progress. The resources that are being brought to bear on some of these big challenges are increasingly impressive. These include not just money or political focus, but also intellectual resources, commitment, and personal energy.

Social entrepreneurs personify that optimism. They have successfully tackled—and continue to tackle—some of the globe’s most complex challenges. They show an often skeptical world that seemingly insurmountable challenges can, in fact, be met. The symbolism is important.

Fifty years ago, a different kind of activist was presented with a moment of opportunity, and he seized it. Wallace Stegner, a Pulitzer-Prize winning American novelist and early conservationist, was approached by a young researcher from the University of California at Berkeley’s Wildlands Research Center. The Center had been given a task by the federal government: to write a six-page letter for publication in a fairly obscure Congressional Report articulating why saving the environment was important.

Stegner seized the moment. He wrote the now-famous “Wilderness Letter” that talked about wilderness not just as a place or thing to be protected, but as an idea—a concept that was important for the full realization of human potential. He wrote:

“Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases; if we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clear air and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved roads through the last of the silence… so that never again can we have the chance to see ourselves single, separate, vertical and individual in the world… we simply need that wild country available to us. even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”

Within a year, Stegner’s letter was everywhere. He saw it posted in a game park in Kenya and on posters in Rhodesia, South Africa, Australia, Canada, and Israel. The phrase “geography of hope” lent itself to the title of at least seven books. And most importantly, it provided the intellectual underpinning for early conservationists, who passed the most far-reaching wilderness protection law in American history three years later.

That is the effect of one passionate person, dedicated to change, seizing a moment. That spirit is alive and well among social entrepreneurs. Their dedication gives us new optimism that we can solve the challenges we face. Their work helps reassure us of our humanity, of our sanity as creatures. They help expand the “geography of hope.”

Sally Osberg
President and CEO, Skoll Foundation

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