Returning to Skoll World Forum

Last time I was at the Skoll World Forum in Oxford was in 2019 – I was 8 months pregnant and had no idea that a global pandemic would soon put the world on lockdown. This year, after 3 years of virtual Forums and weary from parenting and leading in a “poly-crisis” world, I was able to find inspiration at every turn.  Here are five themes that I took with me and am continuing to reflect on:

From social entrepreneurship to social innovation: expanding the tent  

One of the highlights of the Forum each year is the announcement of the “Skoll Awardees” – typically 4-6 organizations that are granted $2.25 million in unrestricted funding and support.  This year the awards were renamed from the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship to the Skoll Award for Social Innovation

While this might seem like a small change, it is an important one that recognizes that in dealing with deeply rooted, intractable issues (from climate change to racial injustice to inadequate health systems and more) we must bring together innovators from across the social sector, philanthropy, government, and business to accelerate solutions.

At CASE we believe that social entrepreneurs serve a critical role as an “R&D lab for society” – often going where markets fail, testing and proving new solutions, relentlessly pursuing social value.  We also believe that the government, corporations, and capital providers have a critical role to play in innovating, providing funding, and helping take solutions to scale. 

Using all of our tools to change narratives 

I’ve been thinking a lot about the narratives that plague society today. How “ESG” has become equated with “woke capitalism”. How polarized our views and conversations have become, stymying productive dialogue. How, as Nobel Prize winning journalist Maria Ressa put it, “our information ecosystem is corrupted” and lies have been shown to spread faster than facts.  But one of the bright spots at the Forum was the reminder that we have tools to change narratives and one of those powerful tools is art and entertainment.

Ava DuVernay – filmmaker, founder of ARRAY, activist, and more – talked powerfully about using her movies as a lever to shift cultural norms, redefining success along the way: “What is a successful film? Is it one that makes profits? Or is it one that echoes through our culture and changes our thinking?” More insights from Ava’s inspiring talk here.

In a panel celebrating 50 years of hip hop, Darryl DMC McDaniels (yes, DMC of Run-DMC!) spoke of the origins and legacy of hip hop: “the whole importance of creating hip hop was to share information that will allow for change. It wasn’t about being in show business, it wasn’t created with record deals in mind. It was created to change mental, physical, spiritual, economic, and political systems of the cities that they were living in, a way to communicate information that everyone could understand.” McDaniels powerfully proclaimed: “The arts succeed where politics and religions fail.”

Elevating proximate leaders and shifting structures of power 

In a conversation with Dr. Kimberly Osagie, Vice President of Programs at Echoing Green, she defined proximate leaders as those with lived or born experience within a particular community or challenge that can never truly be learned.  I’ve written about proximity before, in particular the work that Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, has done to amplify the concept. But the work to elevate proximate leaders is still ongoing as we try to navigate the tension between localized solutions and global scale, between speed and inclusion.  Dr. Osagie quoted Stephen M. R. Covey saying that if we care about sustainable impact we have to “move at the speed of trust.”

Bold and brave leaders across the sector are calling out power imbalances; innovative funders are working to redistribute power through approaches such as trust based philanthropy; and Forums like this one are making progress in elevating the voices of indigenous leaders, youth leaders, and more.   

Resilience for the relay race of life

I mentioned that I came to the Forum feeling weary.  And I am certainly not the only one. Resilience continues to be a core theme throughout conversations during the Forum. There was a full session on nurturing resilience and there are many resources for wellbeing for impact leaders (such as the Wellbeing Project) but the speaker that resonated with me the most was Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool, former South African Ambassador to the US and colleague of Nelson Mandela. He said, “remember that you are just one part of the relay race of life. Things have come before you, and more will come after.” 

This resonated deeply since we know that change takes time and many of us will not be the ones to get to the finish line.  Our role is to stand on the shoulders of those that came before us and pass the baton to the leaders that will come next. Ambassador Rasool went on to talk about building resilience by replenishing yourself, planning for joy and regeneration. He quoted the great Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “we are doing serious work, but never take yourself too seriously.”

The choices we make and our agency to drive change

As an American, it was inspiring to listen to Baltimore Governor Wes Moore – the only Black Governor in the US and only the 3rd in history – talk about government’s role in social innovation. What struck me most when he said, “Poverty is a choice – it is a societal choice, it is a policy choice. It is a choice of how much pain are we are willing to watch our neighbors endure? The climate crisis is a policy choice.  Disparities in health care is a policy choice. Inequality and the racial wealth gap is a policy choice.  And so we need new policies – policies that can do more than paint over the cracks but actually fix the foundation.”

The sentiment about the choices we make was echoed by Dr. Angela Gichaga, CEO of Financing Alliance for Health, in talking about how to prevent another pandemic.  She said, “There is money.  It’s just about how we are choosing to spend it.” She noted that we spent $14 trillion dollars responding during the pandemic. How much could we have saved if we had made a different choice to invest money ahead of time to prevent the pandemic, instead of reacting to it? 

When asked whether she worries that we will forget the lessons learned from the pandemic and go back to the way we were before, Dr. Gichaga emphasized our agency to make different choices.  She said, “We are not restoring factory settings. NO! We refuse. We have learned, we can do better. We are moving forward.”

The conviction in her voice underscored the point.  We must choose to make different choices about the world we want to create, to foster resilience, empower those most proximate to the issues, use all of our tools to change narratives, and partner across sectors to drive social innovation for all.