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Voices Social entrepreneurs

Collaboration: An opportunity for lasting change

Paul C. LightNew York University

Paul C. Light is a professor at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service and is the author of a forthcoming essay titled Social Impact in a Time of Urgent Threats.

This year’s Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford University’s Said School of Business comes at a moment of both great celebration and great disquiet.

On the one hand, the United States has finally taken a significant step forward on health care reform, the war in Iraq seems to be ending, and there seems to be a hint of progress on global climate change.

On the other hand, the world is still struggling with a long list of seemingly intractable problems, the number of failed states appears to be growing, and corruption remains rife in many nations.

I went to last year’s Skoll World Forum ready to be converted to social entrepreneurship as my religion of change. I went to all the panels, the dinners, and the breakouts. I listened and learned and even gave a short talk. I was on fire—great friends, stories, films, music, and food.

But even with my share of bangers and mash from the “Big Bang” (my favorite pub) I was troubled. It was not because I somehow lost hope in social entrepreneurship. I still think it is an important, sometimes wondrous path to achieving social impact. And I can’t help smiling every time I think of my friend Darell Hammond and KaBoom!, the group he cofounded to bring play back into the lives of children. But I came away worried about our ability to reach scale fast enough to address the issues that threaten our world and the dangers that are hurtling toward us at near light speed.

Jeff Skoll was the one who sobered me up. He started the forum with a tough-as-nails speech about global warming, hunger, illiteracy, land mines, nuclear weapons, pandemics, poverty, red tides, toxic waste, and war. The more Skoll talked, the more I wanted to be anywhere but in the historic Sheldonian Theatre where he spoke. So many wonderful start-ups—but so many “wicked problems” and such deep uncertainty about the future. I kept thinking about what one of my mentors told me back in 1975: “It’s what you don’t know you don’t even know that can hurt you.”

There was a nugget of hope that evening, however. It came in the form of a flier describing the 2010 forum that is taking place in Oxford this week (April 14-16) under Pamela Hartigan’s direction. “Social entrepreneurs with innovative solutions to the critical issues of climate change, water scarcity, poverty, education and public health, cannot achieve impact at scale without forging cross-sector partnerships and alliances. With shifts in policy and funding environments and a critical mass of social entrepreneurs working globally, the imperative to collaborate is now.”

Jeff Skoll and his partners at the Skoll Foundation did not suddenly stumble on what they are calling “catalytic collaboration.” They’ve been thinking about it for several years. The foundation’s CEO, Sally Osberg, mentioned it in her remarks at the 2008 forum and Larry Brilliant, the leader of Skoll’s Urgent Threats Fund, can’t stop talking about it.

The collaboration has to bring together more than the usual social-entrepreneur suspects, however. It must involve all of the players working toward social impact—the entrepreneurs who create new combinations of ideas, the social explorers who monitor the trends and opportunities, the social advocates who twist arms and count votes, and the social conservators, as I call them, who protect, repair, and retool the great breakthroughs we have already created and implement change.

We’re talking about social-impact networks here—the big, audacious collections of change agents that challenge conventional wisdom. The focus is less on where the ideas come from, but how they advance—form follows function, not vice versa. That is the focus of McKinsey’s new Learning for Social Impact Web site, Duke University’s Social Impact Exchange, and my hope in launching the New York University/Abu Dhabi Center for Global Public Service and Social Impact.

Social entrepreneurs cannot wait for what Osberg and her colleague Roger Martin call “legions of imitators and replicators” to coalesce around a breakthrough, though it is always nice to have legions of anything behind an idea. They have to learn instead how to “swarm” a target, play hardball, set the agenda, exploit leverage points, create coalitions, and fight back. Social entrepreneurs surely know how to take a punch—that’s part of challenging the status quo. Now they need to learn how to give one too.

Unlike business entrepreneurship, which often relies on the simple power of a good idea and scaling up a single organization, social-impact networks rely on a set of tactics for aggregating energy toward confrontation with the old guard. Yes, both involve inspiration, risk taking, perseverance, indelible optimism, and a dose of plain old hubris. And yes, both create waves of creative destruction. But the waves of creative destruction do not have the same disruptive effects in the business and social sectors. When the waves crash ashore in business, whole industries are washed away for good. When the waves crash ashore in the social sector, however, the old advocates and interest groups rarely disappear. They just lurk out there waiting for a rematch in the next election

The nullification of national statutes is back on the agenda in the United States, for example, even though the US Supreme Court ruled against it in the early 1800s. Budget cuts are back, too, mostly targeted against the discretionary spending that has supported so many of our past breakthroughs in health research, job training, environmental protection, and school lunch programs.

Perhaps it is just because I have seen so many majorities come and go, policies wax and wane, and crises appear and then disappear with the magic of false data, but I believe that past breakthroughs are always fragile, always in peril to some degree. Our job is not just to expand them; even as we introduce new ideas for achieving the basic goals, we must stop the natural erosion that comes with time and complacency.

At least to date, we have mostly ignored the erosion of past achievements as an urgent threat. But safe drinking water is in jeopardy as heavy metals and every pharmaceutical known to human kind leaches into the ground water, civil rights are at risk because of the continued resistance to change (the state of Virginia just celebrated “Confederate History” month sans any mention of slavery) are just two examples of great achievements which remain under fire as Congress, the president, and the states scurry to make increasingly vast budget cuts. Unless we act soon to protect what we’ve already achieved, we will create even more disquiet in the Sheldonian.

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