Late last March I boarded a plane to Great Britain after attending a conference on the European debt crisis at the Banque de France. I was heading to the Skoll World Forum, hoping to replace the despair about the state of the world I had picked up in France with optimism for the future of a world transformed by social enterprises. I was not disappointed.
For an intern at Acumen Fund, the Forum was an eye-opening experience. Every person I talked to told me about amazing ventures, every conversation between the participants ended with excited promises for future collaboration, and every break-out session involved panel members and audiences pushing each other to think about how to take the impact of social enterprises farther. Yet, after two and a half days, the conference was over and the 800 participants traveled back to their respective homes.
I don’t believe this is enough – the problems we are addressing are larger than two and a half days, larger than 800 people. These discussions and these connections leading to collaboration need to be continuous and, even more importantly, they need to include everybody working for social impact, not just those who attend the Forum. A job at a high-profile organization that will pay for attendance, or having a family friend who can secure two unused day passes at the last minute (my method of entrance), should not be necessary to take part in efforts to reach the upper bounds of creating social impact.
As I was mulling over these thoughts at the Forum, I stumbled upon the CoLab. In this room, the Skoll Foundation and Cisco Systems were asking participants to draw the networks of the organizations they work for. Skoll and Cisco promised to use these drawings as a basis for the design of a social network for social impact. Perhaps with this “Facebook for impact,” I thought, Skoll and Cisco would be able to open up the closed system of the Skoll World Forum to everyone 365 days a year.
When I returned to Acumen and expressed my excitement for this type of network, the impact it could create and the new voices it could bring to the table, I was cautioned: social networks for social impact have been tried before. Networks built by a few big players in the space have not seen as much success as one would expect, most likely because people are pressed for time and are only regularly going to use one social network. That network is increasingly becoming Facebook. Moreover, connecting with someone for the first time in the beautiful Oxford spring is much different from interacting over the Internet.
Yet, I still believe there is reason to be cautiously optimistic. Facebook succeeded where MySpace didn’t, and the Skoll Foundation and Cisco Systems are two forces to be reckoned with. I hope Skoll and Cisco learn from and build on the history of social networks for social impact, as well as continue to reach out to all types of potential users. If they succeed in creating a working network, in taking advantage of the explosion of Internet access across the world that brings together everyone from an impact fund in New York to a social enterprise in The Gambia, they might just change the world.
Tristan Zucker is a Global Fellows Program intern at Acumen Fund