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Hans Rosling

Skoll World Forum: Eyes on the Prize

After two and a half days at the Skoll World Forum, one can be left looking for more superlatives – fantastic; inspiring; brilliant.

Hans Rosling at the Skoll World Forum

The 2012 Forum, held last week in Oxford, was no exception. Social entrepreneurship’s move into the mainstream, and the quality of the fringe Oxford Jam event running in parallel, has challenged the curators to stretch the conversation far beyond the ‘what is social enterprise’ starting point that, until even quite recently, dominated the opening of so many social enterprise conferences.

The Forum’s theme of flux accurately reflected the challenges and opportunities that we face today. The plenaries and breakouts addressed broad issues, including ‘Beyond GDP’ and ‘faith and social enterprise’, and specific topics such as education and renewable energy. The Forum’s attendees also reflected this broad range, with representation from large government agencies, investors, academics, philanthropists, foundations and social entrepreneurs operating around the world.

Hans Rosling’s opening talk (from 23:00) on population ‘fill-up’ and leveling-off set the tone, educating and enthralling.  Rockefeller Foundation’s Dr. Judith Rodin, who delivered Acumen Fund’s 2011 Investor Gathering keynote address, chaired the opening panelists and social entrepreneurs discussion (from 47:00), relaying their success in addressing some of the world’s major challenges.

In addition to ‘social enterprise’, a newer term commonly heard at the Forum was, of course, ‘impact investing.’ Several speakers and sessions focused on this, including the excellent pre-Conference discussion led by Cathy Clark from CASE at DUKE on The Impact Investor: A Dialogue on Essential Best Practices for a Maturing Field, examining multiple topics relevant to General Partners and Limited Partners engaged in the field.

Yet throughout this and several other plenaries at the Forum, a phrase that I heard from another conference, TED 2012, recurred to me. Bryan Stevenson spoke about keeping our ‘eyes on the prize’ in the context of injustice – and I believe this is also a challenge we face as a rapidly growing ‘impact investing’ sector.

In particular, it feels like there may be a risk of confusing the means and ends of impact investing. Understanding the type of impact that we set out to achieve should act as the starting point.  Each impact investor has an opportunity to more explicitly articulate the social impact they hope to achieve and resultant level of expected financial return. Otherwise, we run the risk of ‘investing’ moving from being the means towards tackling poverty, to ‘investing’ becoming the ends unto itself.  Without having this conversation, we risk confusion.

As our sector grows, these are issues that we will have to address. Following on from the fantastic Skoll Awards ceremony, a regular guest of the Forum, Annie Lennox (below), dazzled the audience with a performance and encore that will live long in the memory. As she ad-libbed lyrics to “Sweet Dreams” (Are Made of This), weaving in thoughts on social enterprise, it acted as a proverbial reminder to keep our eyes on the prize, and to remember what are the means and what are the ends in what we do.

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Vinay Nair is a Business Development Manager in Acumen Fund’s London office. Follow him on Twitter @vinaynair

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