The Power of One, or the Momentum of Many?

A few of us Firelight staffers are at the Grantmakers Without Borders (GwoB) 2010 Conference this week. GwoB is a gathering of funders who are mostly focused on funding grassroots groups. The watchwords here are  “community”, “solidarity”, and “locally-driven change.” Today, I particularly liked a session that explored the tensions between this community focus and an equally widespread emphasis on ruggedly individual “social entrepreneurs".

I was impressed in this session by the sincerity and thoughtfulness of the Skoll Foundation’s David Rothschild.

David has a strong community background himself, having spent six years with an alliance of environmental and human rights groups working with indigenous people in the Amazon Basin. He admits that when he took a job with the strongly social entrepreneur-branded Skoll Foundation, his friends raised their eyebrows. But he himself saw Skoll’s willingness to take him on as a good sign that they were open to communities and bottom-up processes.

David makes no bones about the business model of Skoll: “We invest in, connect, and celebrate social entrepreneurs and others working to solve the world’s most pressing problems.” But he was also open about lively internal debates within Skoll about how best to do this.

Skoll’s narrative portrays strong individual leaders, but at the same time, the foundation has decided that their Skoll Awards need to go to organizations rather than individuals, and they are in the form of general core support grants rather than specific projects.

Skoll has targeted the “mezzanine level” of social enterprise nonprofits--typically those with tested models ready for scaling up, and budgets of more than one million dollars. But they recognize that this excludes many small organizations, wherein much social innovation lies.  And Skoll is also trying to balance the tension between promoting the field of social entrepreneurship--describing it, telling its story--and being critical about showing impact.

At Firelight, we’ve usually been quicker to salute “community ownership” than individual leadership. But like Skoll, we too are stretching our thinking. Our forthcoming Annual Report, due out next month, will highlight the critical importance of leaders within grassroots organizations.

It is easy to see a foundation as a fortress defending its own particular worldview and 'theory of change'. It was heartening today to hear a major proponent of the ‘heroic narrative’ of social enterprise describe how necessary both the individual and the community are to the other's success.

Peter Laugharn is Executive Director of the Firelight Foundation, which supports grassroots organizations in Africa helping children and families affected by HIV/AIDS and poverty.