Oxford Skollers

Jeff Skoll has had perhaps the greatest impact so far of the generation of philanthrocapitalists that emerged from the internet era. As we write in the book, Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay, who hired Skoll as the website’s first ceo, has struggled to find an effective strategy for his philanthropy, Omidyar Networks (although things now seem to be coming together under the leadership of Matt Bannick). As for, it is hard to know what to make of goings-on there, especially given Larry Brilliant’s recent move upstairs from head of the firm’s philanthropy arm to its chief philanthropy evangelist. It seems fair to say that has so far failed to live up to the hype, though it is still early days.

Skoll, however, goes from strength to strength. Last week, he presided over the 6th annual Skoll World Forum of Social Entrepreneurs, which with over 800 people turning up at Oxford’s Said Business School and Sheldonian Theatre, was the most substantial so far.

As always, hearing about the great things being done to solve society’s toughest problems was an inspiration. We were glad to play our part, Michael moderating a fascinating panel on development featuring, among others, one of our favourite social entrepreneurs, Martin Fisher, of Kickstart, which provides low-cost irrigation pumps that help farmers in poor countries dramatically increase their income, and one of the more interesting hedge-fund philanthrocapitalists, Jamie Cooper-Hohn, of Britain’s Children’s Investment Fund Foundation. She admitted that becoming a philanthropist has required a lot of learning, and that before committing money the foundation now reaches an up-front agreement with its partners (ngos and governments) about the goals of any partnership, what constitutes success, and how it will be scaled up if it succeeds.

Matthew moderated a panel on the implications of the current economic crisis for social entrepreneurs. (Click here and go to the bottom left of the page to watch the panel.) He was surprised that the panelists seemed to be saying much the same as they would have done a year or even two years ago, rather than repositioning themselves for what looks like a changed world in which pro-government types are on the up, rather than the market-oriented folk who gave birth to social entrepreneurship. Matthew’s efforts to get the panelists to address this change surprised some in the audience: as Tom Watson wrote in his Huffington Post blog, “when Philanthrocapitalism author Matthew Bishop suggested in his panel on the economy that social entrepreneurs should consider seeking government stimulus funds to support their ventures, it was as if a modern-day Luther had nailed an anti-capitalist screed to the doors of the Skoll Centre.” Hmmm. Well, maybe – though we have always been clear that one of the great opportunities for philanthrocapitalism is to leverage government funds and power. Indeed, we think that social entrepreneurs backed by philanthrocapitalists may hold the key to making sure that bigger government is also smarter government.

Jeff Skoll mentioned to Matthew during the opening night’s dinner that he regards the crisis as a “window of opportunity” for social entrepreneurs, though he worries that the window could close suddenly. Here’s hoping that the Oxford Skollers gathered last week grab this opportunity while they can.