Reflections on the 6th Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship

I'm a self-confessed Skoll World Forum veteran, having attended all six. Which must mean a lifetime achievement award or something is due sooner or later. I can even remember when it was free (!) and there was a filing cabinet in the centre of the lobby to organise meetings. So I approach the event each year with a mixture of excitement (at the networking / opportunities) and trepidation (at its full-on nature), mixed with a small dash of paracetamol (or Advil, for US readers)…because like many conferences, the good stuff happens in the bar, in the pub and over a glass of something or other.

First up, before I get going, check out everyone else! There is a huge amount of coverage online. My tips for the top to start with would be:

Social Edge where many of the sessions are listenable / viewable online
– Nat Whittemore over at SocialEntrepreneurship.Change.Org (nice to meet you in person, Nat), who took a bunch of interesting video interviews
Social Enterprise Magazine
Ashoka at SWF

But if you search for swf09 or #swf09 (esp. on twitter), you'll find loads. Indeed, for me, this was the event where I really began to understand the full potential of Twitter. So apologies to those following us at @SchSocEnt for the deluge that followed. But it was fascinating to see an alternative conversation and cross-session dialogues going on; questions from someone next door being asked; critiques from people thousands of miles away; dry humour to undercut the worthiness. See here for someone who writes about it better. Or Peter Deitz from Social Actions who said that "Frankly, there are two conferences going on: one for the tweeters and
one for everyone else….The twittering delegates are
having a distributed conversation with people here and around the
world. The others aren't."
Never thought I'd both agree with and understand that sentiment.

Of the planned sessions, I enjoyed the Kiva-GlobalGiving-MyC4 one the most; you may have heard of the first two, but MyC4 was a great find (as was Mads, its founder); another portal for channelling loans and investment to businesses / small scale entrepreneurs. He was also the most 'challenging' member of the panel, acknowledging the need to consider greater collaboration / possible merging, and challenging the Kiva co-CEO to say how much he earned last year (didn't necessarily agree with him on either, but at least he was prepared to divert from the norm). And, of course, these were great practitioner organisations.

Elsewhere, I found sessions on leadership and social capital markets to be dry, occasionally enlightening and fairly frustrating. A familiar malaise of Skoll is to have too many speakers on a panel, not chair them well (so they overrun), and then have little time for questions and answers…that's a problem with lots of conferences, of course, but I guess more so at Skoll because they have such a rich guest list to choose from. But reducing the Q and A also makes for a safer event: no-one challenging someone from UBS heading up a leadership session, for example, or questioning whether, given the collapse in private equity and investment banking, we should be mimicking their models, still, in the social space.

More creative spaces to get practitioners, academics, funders etc learning and working together would add to the mix. Indeed, one of the best sessions for me was straight after the final plenary, where the Skollars (see what they did?) hosted a networking session, having lured us in with wine. It was random (in terms of who you sat with), fairly open (in what you could talk about) and led to some really interesting debates and discussions. We had students, funders, practitioners (incuding the amazing Mothers2mothers co-founder Gene Falk), support/learning agencies (including ourselves and INSEAD) all around one table, and it was fascinating.

Of course, Brits tend to find the standing ovations and awards a bit much for our cynical, repressed selves, so there was also some good home turf networking to be found in pubs nearby whilst the opening / awards were going on (though apparently Ken Blecher + KT Tunstall were great, if you're seeking out highlights online). One of my main highlights, though, was in the bar of the Malmaison at about 2am, meeting David Bornstein (who wrote "How to Change the World"); what a nice, engaging guy, with really great knowledge of this field.

And then, before you knew it, it was all over for another year and back, a little, to reality…to take lessons and learning, to follow up networks and leads, to decipher the jargon, to unload a hundredweight of business cards, to remember good people (Jessica, Rod, Ben, Artur, Richard, Sat, Nigel, Liam, Sean, Jessica (2), Sam, et al), to come back with renewed inspiration, to come back with renewed belief in what SSE is doing…and to remember why I've been five times before.

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The power of franchising from Penwith to Sydney

It's a crazy busy time here at SSE, so blogging been a little squeezed. A few things that are going on are:

– the graduation of our two London programmes (on Thursday pm); see Weekly students and Block students for details of some of those completing their year with us; if you haven't been invited, and would like to come, drop me a line…if we're not drowning under the weight of 40 powerpoints, I might even reply ;0)

– the start of two new London programmes….and they are looking like featuring some great new people; can't wait to meet them all and find out more about their ideas, projects and the support they need

– we've also been attending the Skoll World Forum (round-up post to come), hosting a visiting Canadian delegation, and reading various reports (such as the Volans Phoenix 50 report)

But, most excitingly, on Wednesday of last week, two new franchises began their first programmes….in Cornwall (Penwith, to be more precise) and, drum roll, Sydney (in Australia, to be more obvious). Read a bit more about Cornwall in this article, and check out the details of the first ever Australian SSE-ers here.

Huge congratulations in all those involved in making both initiatives become reality, both within SSE and outside; such a huge achievement. Now we can get on with the important stuff: supporting these amazing individuals to fulfil their potential and create effective, sustainable change.

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New Ashoka UK Fellows….

Just a quick note to say that I attended the Ashoka UK Fellows induction event last night. Despite (because of?) some dubious rapping and the odd eyebrow-raising moment in the speeches, I enjoyed it, and it was good to see lots of familiar and new faces over a glass of wine or two. But more importantly, it was (again) a privilege to be an external interviewer for Ashoka UK….because they work with and support good people. So congrats to Ben, Silvia and Catriona for last night's event, but particular congrats to the new Ashoka Fellows, who are no doubt waking up wondering why they have a bonsai tree on their mantelpiece as we speak…; they are:

– Tom Steinberg of MySociety
– Rob Hopkins of the Transition Network
– Junior Smart of SOS

Updates soon on the vast amounts of SSE activity going on, with new cohorts of students starting this week in Sydney and Cornwall……+ a London graduation of 40 social entrepreneurs next week on the same day as the G20….

And with that, I'm off to the Skoll World Forum in Oxford. You can follow proceedings on this blog, on SocialEdge, on Twitter (hashtag #swf09) and no doubt in a hundred other places.

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Social enterprise branding (or marking…or identifying)

 So the big news is SEC have finally decided (succumbed?) to back the Social Enterprise Mark that originated in the South West: see news story here. Which comes on the back of a lot of pressure not only from the regional bodies and various practitioners, but also from government (who have commissioned COI to do a piece of work about the need for an ‘identifier’).

I think SSE are fairly relaxed about the whole mark debate….sitting outside the definition debates as we tend to do….although I do think this is potentially useful if it helps practitioners communicate better the impact, quality and community-focus of what they do. If it only serves to confuse / lead to infighting, then I guess it won’t be.

It was interesting to chat to COI about all of this; we particularly talked about the CIC. My point was that the CIC’s primary value has actually been as a “badge” or “identifier” as much as the nature of the legal structure itself (to which amendments are coming, we are told)…that, particularly if you are seeking to gain contracts from the public sector, then a CIC structure is a recognisable badge which identifies the organisation as a social enterprise.

I won’t get into the drawbacks of the CIC structure now particularly, but it was interesting to hear from Peter Holbrook the other evening that he’d found it particularly good for the staff/users he worked with, in that they were able to become directors and therefore in control of something. And that being a director of a CIC was more than just being director of a company, because of the social enterprise focus / identification. Worth thinking about in this whole identifier/brand/mark/legal structure debate.

Finally, looking further into the future on this stuff, it was interesting to hear a panel discuss Fair Trade on Peter Day’s World of Business podcast (March 9th episode if you can find it). Particularly good for the debate between those who held that its value was through the rigorous certification criteria (the “it’s a certification mark” group) and those who felt that it had now superseded those beginnings and that its value was now simply as a brand (the “it’s a brand group”). As the social enterprise sector ponders a similar move, learning from the experiences of others (Fairtrade, Soil Association + others in the sector who’ve developed their own quality systems, like Social Firms and ourselves) must surely be high on the agenda.


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Social enterprise and public service delivery

Yesterday, SSE attended the Smith Institute's launch event for its new policy pamphlet, Social Enterprise for Public Service
(pdf download). Good line-up, including Stephen Bubb (ACEVO, Futurebuilders), Minister for the Third Sector Kevin Brennan and his opposite number in the Conservative party Nick Hurd. Each of them, plus Paul Palmer (Cass Business School) and Tom Titherington (Network Housing Group), spoke for 5 minutes, before it was opened up to questions.

Worth mentioning that the SSE chapter in the pamphlet looks at a few questions of relevance + pertinence to social entrepreneurs: whether entrepreneurship can be commissioned and procured; how can such 'unorthodox' people work with 'orthodox' civil servants; how can they gain legitimacy + credibility when self-appointed; is measurement more important than legal structure; and how can pressure to scale and conform be avoided?

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