Blog Post

April 4, 2011 Krista Donaldson

Seen and Heard at the 2011 Skoll World Forum

Andrew Youn of One Acre Fund

Andrew Youn of One Acre Fund and Krista chatting at the opening reception of the Skoll World Forum. Andrew won a Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship in 2010 and is also a Mulago Foundation Rainer Arnhold fellow.

This year’s Skoll World Forum’s theme was large-scale change—and the event, if anything, was larger than life with more than 800 attendees and set in historic Oxford, England.  I was a Skoll newbie—it was my first year attending, and it was daunting.  I did, however, make the strategic decision to attend sessions that had less obvious overlaps with D-Rev. (Story-telling!)  I had been warned prior to #skollwf that 2.5 days were too short to make any meaningful contacts, but I found the opposite to be true.  With so little time and so many interesting people, I was motivated to make the most of it. Here are some highlights from the Forum:

The exchange everyone talked about

Even though Baaba Maal is a hard act to follow, there was buzz after the Opening Plenary about moderator Jonathan Lewis’s exchange with Alvaro Rodriguez-Arregul of the Compartamos Banco. Lewis asked Rodriguez-Arregul if his organization “didn’t have two masters.” (For background, some of you may recall the 2006 New Yorker article by Connie Bruck “Millions for Millions” calling Compartamos’ interest rates “breathtakingly high, even in the world of microfinance…Compartamos borrowers pay an annual rate of 105% percent in interest and taxes.”) Rodriguez-Arregul responded that there was only one—his customers—and his goal is to quickly serve as many customers as possible. The inveterate Lewis then asked what was the difference between Compartamos Banco and Chase-Manhattan bank. I don’t remember Rodriguez-Arregul’s response.

The inspired group that found each other: Affordable Medical Devices

The large and diverse off-grid interest in affordable medical devices ranged from Oxford Business students starting mDiagnostica, hugely knowledgeable Dee Kyne of Health4All and Pathfinder, Bart Weetjens’ organization Apopo that trains “hero rats” to detect land-mines and screen patients for tuberculous (HOW cool is that?), and the passionate Shona McDonald of Shonaquip in South Africa that helps people who need specialized wheelchairs.  In addition to the many one-on-ones that sprang up, we had three meet-ups with more than 30 people. One of my one-on-ones was with the inspiring David Green, MacArthur fellow and a driving force behind Aurolab. He shared lessons from past successes and misses. (Many thanks, David!) Maybe affordable med devices will get our own session next year?

Is grant-making dead?

There were disproportionately high numbers of two groups of people at Skoll: (1) people from the Bay Area (Overheard at the Oxford Jam over post-workshop drinks: “No way! I’m from San Francisco too!”) and (2) “impact investors” and related. The size and volume of the second group continue to surprise me given the lack of rigorous and longitudinal analyses of the for-profit social enterprise sector.

Anne Marie Burgouyne of Draper Richards Foundation moderated the panel “Grants Powering Growth: Jet Fuel for Social Impact” asking if grants weren’t dead yet?  No, was the answer—they are just damn hard to get (Nick Moon, KickStart—full disclosure: my former boss and an excellent person), foundations are unwilling to take risks, keeping non-profits hand to mouth (Chris West “don’t call us, we’ll call you”, Shell Foundation) and “For profits can use grants too!” (Suzanne Biegel, one of her “three hats” is Investors’ Circle).  Not dead perhaps, but sadly a reason why so many non-profits are reinventing themselves as for-profits.

It will make you laugh aloud

Archbishop Desmond Tutu (a.k.a. “the Arch”)’s infectious laughter. The Atlantic captured it here.


Too many stories to count, but Skoll awardee Rebecca Onie of Health Leads is a standout. Health Leads challenges doctors to write prescriptions not just for medicines, but also for food, heat, and housing—the things people need to be healthy, and gets undergraduates to secure them—in the US.

Skoll folks, next year—can we please see more:

  • Practitioners, people on the ground, who are the social change agents
  • On transparency—in organizations and with impact assessment
  • On technology (mobile and clouds are good starts)
  • Relating academic ideas and data to actionable items for those of us running organizations
  • On grants, challenges and inconsistencies
  • Baaba Maal and Peter Gabriel!
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