Newsmaker: Radical in a suit

Mathew Little

Rowena Young Director, Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship - 'Seeking profits and doing good are compatible'.

Yesterday's radicals wanted to bring down capitalism. Today, says Rowena Young, their more pragmatic descendants want to turn markets into forces for good.

If Young had come of age in the 1970s, she might have been squatting in a commune in Brixton. But the radical of 2006 is dressed in a suit and about to host a conference featuring former US vice-president Al Gore, as well as the vice-president of the World Bank and the former head of Goldman Sachs.

Young, 34, is director of the Oxford-based Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, which was set up with a £4.4m donation from eBay billionaire Jeff Skoll, who has recently bankrolled 'social change' films such as Good Night, and Good Luck and Syriana.

It's getting harder to distinguish the radicals from the establishment. According to the Skoll definition, social entrepreneurship is a slippery customer that embraces charities, social enterprises, co-operatives, 'socially focused corporate activity' and public sector projects such as NHS Direct. "Social entrepreneurs experiment with different ways of delivering a social impact," says Young. "Unlike the conventional third sector, they're pragmatic about which organisational form they might need."

This week's world forum on social entrepreneurship, the third the centre has organised, focuses on how to finance this 'sector'. In the stilted prose of international conferences, it promises that participants will "achieve traction" for their priorities.

Young's CV includes stints with drugs charity Kaleidoscope and the School for Social Entrepreneurs, but she believes the charity sector is uncomfortable with the concept of 'social entrepreneurship' - the idea that seeking financial returns and doing good can be compatible. "Ideologically," she says, "the sector is not comfortable with it."

But she believes collaboration with the financial mainstream can reap rewards. Grant-making foundations can marry their philanthropic and financial aims by underwriting risky social enterprises, enabling banks to come in with larger loans when an organisation has found its feet. "Philanthropic donors have enormous freedom over what they do with their money," she says. "There's much to be gained by being smarter about conventional philanthropy."

Other social enterprises, such as the Ethical Property Company, which lets offices to voluntary organisations, have launched successful share issues, taking advantage of the fact that many consumers want their savings to achieve a social purpose, not deforest the Amazon.

"Many people would like to invest socially," says Young. "But parts of the sector haven't recognised that the same people are having different conversations about their charitable giving and their personal finance."

The Skoll Centre says social entrepreneurship has inherited the mantle of fighting social injustice. But whereas the radicals of the past gave the powers that be sleepless nights, the current crop will enjoy a glass of wine with the likes of Gore.

Is social entrepreneurship too tame and loose a concept to achieve social change? Young argues it is more a way of thinking, and believes the discussions that Skoll facilitates, between investment bankers, politicians, entrepreneurs and activists, might not always be so polite.

"We're trying to create an environment in which these different people can engage and sometimes have conversations that are a bit uncomfortable," she says. "Social entrepreneurship has enjoyed a honeymoon period and at some point there will be bust-ups. I don't think that's a bad thing, and I don't think we should be trying to smooth them out."

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