Why the Skoll World Forum is elitist and anti-social-entrepreneurial

Friday, 8 January 2010

For those who have never come across this, the Skoll World Forum is an annual event that brings together social entrepreneurs around the world to look at supporting international learning and collaboration (or so I thought).

Ever since I set up my first social enterprise 7 years ago (the European Nursing Leadership Foundation), I have been interested in supporting and developing other social entrepreneurs. Initially this was very much driven by how poor my experience was of support organisations but then increasingly by trying to help people avoid the kind of mistakes that I (and many other social entrepreneurs) made in our early days. Since then I have founded other social enterprises and helped dozens of social entrepreneurs along their own journey towards creating their own social enterprises. This has also involved me getting involved regionally (on the boards of SELNET and SEEM) and latterly nationally (as a Council member of the Social Enterprise Coalition). I point this out by way of background and also to explain why I am passionate about social entrepreneurs learning from each other and supporting each other. In fact one of the amazing aspects of the social enterprise world is how open, generous and helpful most social entrepreneurs are towards each other and I think this is a visible expression of the fact that most of us are driven by values which are much more about benefiting others than they are about benefiting ourselves.

And this brings me onto the Skoll World Forum (http://www.skollworldforum.com/).

For the last few years a number of friends had been eulogizing about this as the major international event for social entrepreneurs. Whilst conferences like Voice, the Shine Unconference, etc are always must-attend-events in my diary for the opportunity to meet and share ideas with some of the most amazing social entrepreneurs around, it does tend to be mainly UK-based. So I thought it would be good to share some ideas, inspiration, debates, etc with some international social entrepreneurs, so I applied to attend Skoll. It seemed a bit odd having an application form rather than just buying tickets but I put this down to the quirkiness of academia.

Today I got an email from a nameless sender saying that "Unfortunately, we are not able to offer you a delegate space at this time". Now they are still open for applications on the site so this really says "we don't want you".

Now there are two things that made me really angry about this:

1) They seem to be rejecting the genuine social entrepreneurs

A few minutes on Twitter and I found a number of other people who had also been turned down by Skoll. What tended to characterise them is that they are all running social enterprises. The impression given is that Skoll is for people who aren't social entrepreneurs but like talking about the idea of social entrepreneurship rather than any real engagement with practicing social entrepreneurs. Whilst I understand that social enterprise is sexy, it is irritating how many people are attracted to the idea of social enterprise without actually getting involved in setting up or running social enterprises.

2) This is an example of the kind of elitism that social entrepreneurs are fundamentally opposed to

Openness, transparency, fairness and equality of opportunity are core values to most social entrepreneurs. We wouldn't dream of running services that were only available to people we like or even worse "people like us". What you would expect if you applied for an event is either a very clear transparent criteria for admission or a fair transparent non-discriminatory way of allocating limited places (e.g. first-come first-served).

What seems to be happening at Skoll is that some nameless person or people sift through the applications deciding who they want and who they don't. It is harder to imagine a process that is a worse antithesis of everything that social enterprise is supposed to stand for. It is the kind of mentality that kept women and ethnic minorities from clubs, societies and government for decades and has no real place in any organisation, let alone one that aspires to be empowering individuals, improving society and bringing about positive change in the world.

In case there are those who feel this is simply a rant about not being able to get a ticket to an event, I wouldn't feel this angry if it was a concert, commercial conference, etc because those organisations don't hold themselves up as ethical social organisations. You expect this kind of behaviour from traditional capitalist organisations because often these are run for the comfort of those in charge. I would expect a traditional organisation to want to surround itself with like-minded people from similar backgrounds and organisations because its comfortable and doesn't expose it to real challenge or diversity. Social entrepreneurs often are passionate about justice and fairness and when we see unjust unfair practices like this it makes us angry. That anger and passion is at the heart of most social enterprises and is the fuel that drives the change we want to see in the world.

Genuine social entrepreneurs are often challenging, disruptive and vocal and we are used to more conservative organisations finding us uncomfortable or strange. What is such an enormous waste is that there are plenty of opportunities for policy-makers, government officials and academics to gather but there are very few opportunities for genuine social entrepreneurs to do this. When someone claims to be interested in supporting us but then denies us access to each other then this is just fundamentally wrong. Can you imagine the Social Enterprise Coalition deciding who it does and doesn't want to attend the Voice conference? Of course private clubs can decide who is cool enough to attend and who isn't (although this is more often associated with the schoolyard or fashionable nightclubs than with international conferences) but we shouldn't let this be done in the name of social entrepreneurship.

The light at the end of this particular tunnel is that since I posted this on Twitter, a number of other “Skoll rejects” (e.g. genuine social entrepreneurs) have emerged and we are trying to organise an UnConference to achieve ourselves what we thought Skoll was supposed to be doing. All credit to Ben Metz for starting this at http://www.pledgebank.com/OxJam10 and this will hopefully be a human-scale event for social entrepreneurs to network, share ideas, inspire each other and really change the world.

We only need 50 more people so please sign up and I look forward to seeing you there.


High Heid Yin 10 January 2010 at 08:19  

Hi David, I too have been rejected, so at least we are in good company. I have asked why, so will let you know what responsse I get!


Dave Dawes 11 January 2010 at 03:40  

Hi Michele, they are still advertising on the website even though I am hearing from lots of social entrepreneurs that they are being rejected. So they obviously still want people, just not people who are actually social entrepreneurs!

It's such a shame to see discriminatory practices like this from an organisation that claims to have such high ideals.

Sergio Lopez 11 January 2010 at 06:07  

I have been rejected in a record time, maybe they use the same for everyone! It felt like the time when I had to be rejected by a commercial bank for a loan. No worries I've signed to OxJam10

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