Reflections from the Skoll World Forum 2018

In April 2018, the 15th Skoll World Forum (SWF) on Social Entrepreneurship was held at Oxford University. This is an annual gathering of social entrepreneurs, thought leaders, social investors and other stakeholders, all of whom come together to share knowledge and exchange ideas in the “pursuit of learning, leverage, and large-scale social change”. This year, I had the opportunity to attend SWF for the first time.

It was a hectic week, full of official and “ecosystem” events touching on a wide range of issues: from artificial intelligence’s role in social investment to making “Big Bets” for social change; from power imbalances between donors and social investees to new technologies for tracking and measuring impact. More than 1 000 delegates from 50+ countries attended, and there was never a dull moment. As the four-day conference wrapped up, I came away with two overarching feelings, one challenging and the other encouraging.

First the challenge. It is a privilege to travel internationally and be exposed to global thinking on development issues. Spending a week with like-minded social investors and entrepreneurs, who are “thinking big” about how to drive change, is always exciting. In South Africa, there are numerous donors like this, who take social investment seriously and push the boundaries of what is possible (Tshikululu is privileged to call many of them clients). At the same time, there are not enough of these donors in our country. Too often, “CSI” is implemented as a tick-box exercise to maximise BBBEE points or a feel good exercise that prioritises exposure over impact. This approach leaves so much potential on the table, underutilised for the greater good. It also perpetuates the troubling perception that education, health and social work are somehow inferior to “harder” professions in the finance, engineering and other sectors, rather than a critical contributor to our national stability, viability and future. Platforms such as SWF are a clear reminder that real change is possible through thoughtful, strategic social investment. We should demand this from all South African social investors.

As for the encouragement, it was awesome to see beyond any doubt that the best South African social investors can hang with anyone, anywhere. Attending a “sexy” global event like the SWF, I expected to be blown away by new social investment models and innovations. Although the programme was great and the conference was one of the best I have attended, it only confirmed that the work being done here at home is truly world-class. Whether we were talking about scaling up impact, driving systemic change, fostering social innovation, structuring hybrid financing models, driving long-term community-based development and/or effective donor collaboration, I could immediately point to initiatives and programmes that Tshikululu has helped to design, establish, build, strengthen and/or fund around the country.

So much of the social investment and development narrative is driven by the West, but some of the strongest and most impactful initiatives are born and bred in the Global South. As I flew out of rainy Heathrow Airport towards the sunny skies of Johannesburg, I couldn’t wait to get back to the action.