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Skoll World Forum: Not Short On Ambition

Last week marked the annual Skoll World Forum on Social Enterprise, in Oxford, England. A global event that brings together some of the most inspiring charities, foundations, trusts, CEOs, investors, and hard working people across the industry all in the name of learning, building connections, and ultimately, creating an even larger impact in the world than we do individually. Running in parallel to Skoll, is Oxford Jam, a fringe festival for young social entrepreneurs and perhaps more alternative ideologies. The Markets for Good team were in Oxford for all the activities and what follows is some highlights from both events on the role of data and what it may look like in the future.

While you might expect data to play an integral part of this well-known gathering of world-leading social enterprise thinkers and doers, we shouldn’t underestimate this particular moment for the Forum. A fellow delegate noted that ‘there was a real transformation in the attitude to data compared to past years’. Further evidence was the fact that so many sessions were focused on the value of data.

Before I go into some of the sessions, it is worth noting the theme of this year’s event: ‘Ambition’. A Pioneers Post article delves into what that ambition means for social enterprise: applying its capacity and innovation to address the root causes of big problems. To quote the event’s founder, Jeff Skoll, ‘We are at a defining moment, at which we have the opportunity to change the course of the next decade’. Unlimited ambition will help drive continuous change no doubt, but it also leads us to ask how data can be a part of this.

The very first session we attended was no less than ‘Cracking the Code on Social Impact’, led by Mission Measurement  and the architect of Pandora’s Radio’s Music Genome Project, Nolan Gasser. Moving from how data can inform which artists you will like to how we may use similar methodology to track social impact, the team shared unique evaluation methods. These methods “enable funders to understand the efficiency, effectiveness and cost-per-outcome of the programs they fund across a diverse portfolio of programs – critical information for deciding what to continue funding, what to fund more of and what to stop funding.”

The session ‘Striking a Balance for Good Measure’ highlighted that all charities are grappling with time management & prioritization when it comes to data collection and evaluation. The Chief Impact Officer of Fair Trade, Mary Jo Cook spoke of many trials and tribulations, but stressed the point of long term capacity building, and collecting the right kind of data. If this can be done with similar organisations and collaboration, then you will make even better progress.

From sessions on ‘Big Data’ to ‘Measuring What Matters’ , day two sharpened the conversation with an acute focus on  data practice. From experts discussing the pros and cons of data, to José Molinas the Paraguayan Minister for Economic Development and Social Planning declaring the need to use social progress data as a means of holding politicians accountable for their actions, we were spoilt for choice.

Running parallel to the Skoll World Forum, Oxford Jam, with its younger audience and newer businesses, is where you are, perhaps, more likely to bump into the next big innovator in social enterprise, discussing many of the same topics, with every bit the same ambition. With many delegates flitting between the two events, it was interesting to note there was a greater emphasis on the creation of social enterprises, which perhaps suited the audience. The role of data was centered on an inquiry into its value, and how it can be utilize for accountability purposes.

As with any good event, there were a few key points that sparked further discussion, which we would like to bring to your attention, and hear your reactions.

‘We cannot standardize performance metrics’ – Jason Saul

‘I feel this change (in data collection and measurement) has to be forced, with a large donor or funder coming in and creating a standard, making everyone else raise to that point.’ – Mary Jo Cook & Ehen Reed

‘We should strive to collect more data than we will actually use… then narrow down what we actually need’ – Mary Jo Cook & Ehen Reed

‘$30 donors want to know why you do what you do, and why they should donate. Social Investors know why they invest, they want to know how you do what you do. It is a toxic environment for donors who can’t differentiate charities.’ – Peter Hero

Thanks to the Skoll World Forum, it is clear that data and information is becoming ever more prominent in our industry. However, it is important to have a conversation from both sides, that will ultimately allow everyone to better utilize data, to make better decisions. It was with great pleasure that we were able to represent Markets For Good and you, our readers at such pioneering events. Be sure to follow the speakers, the Skoll Foundation, and of course, join the debate on Twitter.