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Case Study: The Power of Convening for Social Impact

This article originally appeared in Stanford Social Innovation Review as part of our Case for Communications series.

Bringing people together in an environment that encourages and facilitates idea exchange is one of the most powerful communications strategies for driving change.

Twelve years ago, when the Skoll Foundation held the first Skoll World Forum at Oxford’s Saïd Business School in collaboration with the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, the goal was simple and straightforward: Bring together academics, practitioners, and other innovative leaders to explore metrics, discuss case studies, and build the field of social entrepreneurship. The concept and practice of social entrepreneurship were still being defined, and we believed there weren’t very many people actually doing this sort of work.

A Communications Opportunity

While the first gathering comprised a relatively small group, within a few years, we discovered that the forum was rapidly becoming a center of gravity and an active hub for a broad range of individuals who saw their own work as part of the social entrepreneurship movement.

Our initial, somewhat naïve assumption that we needed to help “build a field” was turned upside down, and we instead discovered an opportunity to curate a safe and supportive space for practitioners from across all sectors to come together and explore new models for social impact. We realized that we didn’t need to build a movement; the movement was already there. But we did have an opportunity to help shape and amplify the work of those dedicated to accelerating new ways of thinking about global social progress.

Within a few years, we were filling every seat at Saïd Business School, hosting discussions on diverse issues like poverty reduction, economic development, global health, human rights, and education. By placing impact and the multi-stakeholder approach social entrepreneurs take to create sustainable change at the center of each of these discussions, delegates were able to drive ideas, solutions, and progress.

The Power and Challenge of Convening

Over the years, the foundation has created publications and online platforms to help drive work and build connections. Even with new technologies and applications, the Skoll World Forum remains our chief way to convene people, facilitate collaboration between partners, break down silos, and foster a community.

Bringing diverse people and voices together in our fast-moving world isn’t without its challenges. To find fresh perspectives and voices from around the world, we face logistical barriers in securing visas, managing travel, and navigating global health and national security scares. Busy practitioners face the burden of leaving their work, families, and other personal obligations behind to attend a multi-day event that is, for many, a long plane ride away.

Despite these challenges, we’ve seen the incredible opportunities, enthusiasm, and ideas that can come to fruition only by bringing people together and providing a safe space for exploration and innovation.

Unlikely Connections Foster New Opportunities

Each year, we curate a social entrepreneurship program focused on global trends, new approaches, and lessons learned. However, a lot of important work at the forum is largely invisible to the public. Over the past decade, we have made sure that the forum is a place where people who might not otherwise have a chance to meet can convene private work sessions.

When we secure commitments from high-level government officials, corporate leaders, and other leading global thinkers, we want to get value from their ideas and experiences, but also make sure that they aren’t simply jumping from the stage to a plane. We expect them to participate in smaller, more intimate meetings, where they might provide input to the recent Paris Climate Accords, get advice from practitioners on achieving the new Sustainable Development Goals, or explore the introduction of new ways to measure social progress such as the Social Progress Index.

The forum’s core sessions and public programming provide the magnet for people to attend, but these private working sessions focused on creating impact provide another layer of value for everyone.

Supporting Individuals and Building a Community

Social entrepreneurs and other change agents are personally driven to create change, and often face enormous challenges. As Sally Osberg and Roger Martin explain in their new book, Getting Beyond Better, social entrepreneurs don’t just aim to make things better. They “imagine the world as it should be and say ‘why not?’” This unwavering ambition and unrelenting commitment means that many of them achieve success at a very personal cost.

In-person events provide an opportunity to build a supportive community. We curate the forum to inspire and motivate social entrepreneurs and other innovators by celebrating their work and recognizing that their personal sustainability is central to their success.

Several closed-door group sessions encourage delegates to explore their personal balance, the toll their work may be taking on their spiritual and physical selves, and how they might be more effective in their varying leadership roles from work to family. Face-to-face convenings provide an emotional and intellectual safe space that allow delegates to recognize what may be holding them back—or what may help accelerate their effectiveness.

“On-ramps” Bring New People on Board

While the forum focuses much of its program on creating a space where people can roll up their sleeves and get work done, we recognize that a broader community is interested in learning more about social entrepreneurs and the pressing issues facing our world.

To meet this demand, we hold public programming in a centrally located commercial theatre in Oxford. Community members can purchase tickets to attend plenaries and our annual awards ceremony, making the forum more inclusive and providing an “on-ramp” for people to learn more. In addition, we have invested in building a strong digital presence to help people from around the world virtually experience the forum. We host a live stream of popular sessions on our website, and produce blogs and social media posts that allow people to engage and participate in online conversations.

The Impact of Connections, Ideas, and Commitments

Each year, we hear stories about new connections, new funding commitments, and new ideas that evolved into successful enterprises. The spark of an idea that ultimately became SOCAP and the annual gathering of the principals leading and implementing the Social Progress Index are just two examples of the extraordinary impact of bringing people together.

Convening also gives us the opportunity to be active members within the community. In creating the forum, we have created a marketplace for ideas where we can be both the host and a stakeholder. This allows us to revisit our own approaches and reflect on new ideas to drive our own work forward.

Despite all the technological advances, we know that human beings will continue to value meeting in person as the primary way to build and maintain relationships. Face-to-face communications may become more important in our increasingly digital world, as people seek out connections that go beyond a Twitter chat or a blog post. Over the past 12 years, we have seen the unique power of gathering to help people communicate, learn, grow—and, ultimately, drive the kind of change they want to see in the world.


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