The Skoll Foundation and a nice cohort of Skoll social entrepreneurs met yesterday with a group from the New York Regional Association of Grantmakers to talk about social entrepreneurship. As it name suggests, NYRAG is a group that pulls together foundations and other organizations in New York that finance social ventures and non-profits. Skoll CEO Sally Osberg gave an overview of how the Skoll Foundation got started, with Jeff Skoll’s interest, from before his eBay days, in driving social change, leveraging the power of innovative individuals,and building community. David Bornstein, who’s been writing about social entrepreneurship for nearly 15 years, also gave a talk, as well as hosted a panel with two Skoll social entrepreneurs, Willie Foot of Root Capital and Jeroo Billimoria of Aflatoun-Child Savings International.
David made an important observation about social change, broadly, and social entrepreneurship, in particular. Citing something he called “availability heuristics”, he said that studies have shown that people hinge the probability of success of something based on the number of examples they’ve seen. Tapping into the Wall Street mess, he pointed out that, a few months back, no one would have thought it remotely possible a major Wall Street bank could fail. Now, if you asked, people would say, “sure, it’s possible.” The challenge of social entrepreneurship, he argued, is similar. There’s one shining example that many people know – Mohammad Yunus and Grameen Bank – but few other well known examples. David’s mission, as a writer, is to get more of those examples of success out there. (Incidentally, David also had a great definition of vocation: where your deepest yearning meets the world’s greatest needs.)
In the panel discussion, Willie and Jeroo made a number of interesting points. A few that stood out for me… Root Capital plays in the financial arena, seeking to create a new class of capital for the “missing middle”, organizations too small for commercial banks and too big for microfinance. Citing the current Wall Street difficulties, he said the problems arise when you don’t know whom you’re lending to. The Root Capital model is high touch, involving lending, training, and closely engaging local finance industries in the emerging markets where Root Capital works. When asked about how to manage risk in complex environments, Willie emphasized both the importance of working with local finance groups to share and help them understand risk better, as well as the role philanthropy can pay in buying down risk.
Jeroo, whose organization delivers social and financial education for children, highlighted the importance of partnership. Her goal is to keep the central organization of Aflatoun small, focused on development of curriculum, and leverage other networks – schools, training programs, banks, governments – to expand the program. She partners with several other Skoll social entrepreneurs in this process – Fondacion Paraguaya, Afghan Institute for Learning, Escuela Nueva, among others. She told this group of grantmakers she didn’t want their money, but wanted them to provide money to organizations that would then partner with Aflatoun to deliver financial training to children. Aflatoun is already in 20 countries, with curriculum in 11 languages, so the model is working.
Both Willie and Jeroo exemplify a concept Sally Osberg has been talking a lot about this week in her various meetings around the Clinton Global Initiative: outsized impact. Successful social entrepreneurs are able to take their ideas, identify assets that will let them expand their ideas, and really grow their impact well beyond what fairly modest budgets might suggest. By leveraging local resources and a variety of partners, Root Capital and Aflatoun – and many of the other social entrepreneurs with whom we work – have been able to reach ever broader constituencies with their services. This is how impact happens.