Sunday, 29 March 2009

Skoll 2009: Inspirational social entrepreneurs

With 785 delegates from 60 countries and 6 continents at the Skoll World Forum, it was hard to avoid inspirational social entrepreneurs during the 48 hours I spent in Oxford this week. But then, why would I want to?!

From Altanta to Amsterdam and Zambia to Zimbabwe, entrepreneurs are achieving success tackling social, community and environmental issues which those adopting traditional governmental and public sector approaches can only dream about.

Here is just a handful of the many inspirational individuals and organisations I came across during my time at Skoll:

Endeavor: After several months chatting with Elmira Bayrasli from New York-based not-for-profit Endeavor via social network Twitter I had the pleasure of meeting Elmira and her colleague David Auerbach in person at the forum. Established in 1998, Endeavor identifies entrepreneurs with high impact potential in developing countries and provides them with the resources required to break down local barriers to success.

In the developed world, Endeavor Entrepreneurs would be celebrated but in their own countries they are often overlooked, encounter few role models and lack access to sufficient capital and contacts. As of 2007, business owners assisted by Endeavor throughout Latin America, South Africa and Turkey have created 86,000+ new jobs and generated over $2.51bn in revenues.

Nathaniel Whittemore, founding director of the Center for Global Engagement at Northwestern University, interviewed Elmira. Here's what she had to say:

Better World Books: The best business ideas are often the simplest and Better World Books is one such company. Originally established by Xavier Helgesen, Jeff Kurtzman and Chris Fuchs while studying at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, the company collects used and unwanted books, re-sells them online and donates half the proceeds to literacy projects. To date Better World Books has raised more than $6m for literacy charities around the world and saved in excess of 22m books from landfill. In 2008, Better World Books opened its first non-US subsidiary in Edinburgh.

Here's a short film about Better World Books:

APOPO: If I asked you to name your favourite animal, it's very unlikely you'd sing the praises of the rat. Once you've read about APOPO though you may well change your mind.

Founded by Belgium Buddhist monk turned social entrepreneur Bart Weetjens, the organisation trains African giant pouched rats to search for deactivated landmines in Africa. Cheap, intelligent and, most importantly, lightweight, the 'HeroRATS', as APOPO calls them, have been responsible for the reopening of over 400,000 square meters of suspect land thus preventing the potential deaths of hundreds if not thousands of local people. And if you thought that was impressive, the rats are also now being used for the early detection of tuberculosis in humans!

Here's a short film from Animal Planet about APOPO's work in Africa:

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Skoll 2009: Welcome to the new paradigm

As a journalist, I go to a lot of conferences but unfortunately not all prove to be particularly useful. That description however can in no way be applied to the Skoll World Forum which I had the pleasure of being part of today.

Not wishing to exaggerate but at times it really felt like a revolution is just around the corner. The overwhelming message coming out of Oxford's Said Business School, the main venue for the conference organised by the Skoll Foundation, is that it is entrepreneurs with a social conscience who hold the key to getting us out of the financial mess we're currently all in.

Speaker after speaker stressed that the old order is no longer sustainable. An economy based on extreme risk taking has proved to be unworkable (and that's a huge understatement) so a different type of approach is what's required.

Sir Ronald CoSir Ronald Cohen at the Skoll World Forum 2009hen, the father of the British venture capital industry and a key player in the social investment market, summed it up the best. Referring to a "new paradigm", he told attendees including me at a session entitled 'Capital markets in crisis: Threat or opportunity?': "Philantro-capitalism is an idea that needs to come through strong in the new economic environment and it is up to social entrepreneurs to demonstrate its value to the powers that be."

"The role of the social market", he continued, "is to do what the government can't for the benefit of society. We are here and we will do the job."

That's not to say that the sector's complacent because, as we all well know, it isn't going to be easy. Like Sir Ronald warned, social entrepreneurs will get "lost in the noise" unless they raise their profile by lobbying government, speaking to the press and commissioning research.

It's not like we're stuck for examples of social enterprise in action though. I learnt of some pretty amazing businesses during my few hours at Skoll. I'll be blogging in detail about them in another post but some of my favourites are Better World Books which has raised in excess of $6m for literacy initiatives worldwide by selling used books and Apopo which trains sniffer rats to detect explosives and diagnose disease in Africa.

Apopo was one of seven social enterprises which received a grant of £500,000 at the Skoll Foundation's annual awards announced in the magnificant surroundings of the Sheldonian Theatre on Thursday evening.

Hosting the event, Skoll Foundation CEO Sally Osberg also welcomed the dawn of a 'new paradigm'. In a rousing speech, she told delegates: "The old order is crumbling as we create a morally justifiable and sustainable world. Social entrepreneurs are humanity's scouts looking for opportunities and returning with news of what real change looks like."

Now who wouldn't be inspired by that?

I'll be tweeting from day three of the Skoll World Forum on 27 March. Follow me at

Sunday, 15 March 2009

How Twitter is changing the way charities fundraise

If press reports are to be believed, one major casulty of the recession is charitable giving. Indeed a poll released last Friday by claimed 22% of Britons have reduced the amount they give to charity as a result of the economic downturn.

There's no doubt that when times are tough, many people are put off from dipping into their pockets for a good cause. Charities and other organisations with social aims certainly face hard challenges over the coming months but those who think innovatively about they way they get their word out could emerge from the recession in a better state than when they entered it. How? By embracing the power of social media.

The research mentioned above was released on Red Nose Day, a UK fundraising initiative which raised a staggering £59,187,065, the highest total in organiser Comic Relief's 21-year history. That doesn't suggest compassion fatigue now does it!

In my view, the key to Comic Relief's success was the way it embraced social media. From YouTube to Facebook to Flickr to MySpace, Red Nose Day was there but it's Twitter on which I'm going to focus.

I didn't buy pop down to my local supermarkt to buy a plastic red nose this year but I did buy a digital version for my Twitter profile image. I didn't call the fundraising hotline during the Friday night telethon but I did spend £9 on a book of jokes created to raise money for Comic Relief. Why? Because of Twitter.

Through clever use of the web, thousands paid a £1 for a digital red nose and to encourage greater take-up, a Twitter page informed tweeters that their profile pic sporting the red nose would be displayed on the official website for the world to see.

Equally innovative was the TwitterTitters initiative which in just four weeks gathered jokes and printed a book to raise money for the cause via Twitter. It even managed to gain the backing of Dave Spikey, co-creator of award winning British TV show Phoenix Nights and comedy legend and Twitter-addict Stephen Fry.

I think you get my point.

Using Twitter, charities can spread their word instantly to thousands if not millions of people. By our very nature, us humans like being part of something big and that is certainly the case among the Twitter community. But we're also quite lazy creatures so being able to participate in something massive by a simple click of a mouse is perfect.

Red Nose Day isn't the only time when Twitter has been harnessed for social change. More and more charities and social businesses are realising its power every day.

One of the biggest success stories to date is the Twestival, which raised in excess of $250,000 for charity: water. I was part of it and organised the Twestival in Bristol, south west England. Like the 184 other parties around the world, we put our event together in just five weeks and pretty much entirely through Twitter.

Through the network I was able to connect with interested parties instantly and gather donations, funding and other support much quicker and in greater numbers than I would have been able to without Twitter. Here's a short film showing what we achieved:

Another key driver behind Twestival's success was charity: water's willingness to step back and let the volunteers get on with it. Too often, many socially driven organisations fall short by imposing excessive rules and bureaucracy on its supporters. By their very nature, social media communities are put off by such an attitude so it's important charities give them the space to innovate.

Another current initiative is doing just that. Launched at the South by South West festival currently taking place in Austin, Texas, organisation Epic Change, is encouraging people to tweet messages of good luck to friends and followers and at the same time raise money for schoolchildren in Tanzania. Here's the official TweetLuck video:

Twitter is increasing in popularity every day which opens up more opportunities for social organisations to be innovative. Yes, the recession means it's not going to be easy but rather than sit back and wait for the worst, charities and others need to get out there and embrace social media in all its forms and prove the doom mongers wrong.