Recently, contributor Deborah Schimberg had the chance to attend the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship at the Saïd Business School in Oxford, England. She shares a few thoughts here.

Should we see our contaminated and warring world as cause for despair, or as a call to action? Social entrepreneurs choose the second, and big-time business is getting on board. And of the 16 award-winners recently announced by the Skoll Foundation — which was created by former eBay president Jeff Skoll — several had a green bent.

There was Jim Fruchterman of Benetech, who is working on several sector-changing businesses, among them a software program that will help conservation groups standardize data collection and management. And Mindy Lubber of Ceres, which helps shareholders pressure major corporations like Ford to adopt forward-looking policies. Another, Albina Ruiz of Ciudad Saludable, has worked to set up eco-enterprises in 20 cities in Peru. These folks are all addressing serious structural problems in the environmental sector with systematic, business-like methods.
Fruchterman started his career in rocket science, but decided to shift his technological skills and entrepreneurial bent to the social sphere. His company, Benetech, “turns data into knowledge,” creating mission-specific software that allows environmental and social groups to use technology to advance their goals. Now, in conjunction with Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, The Wildlife Conservation Society, and others, he’s created the Conservation Measures Partnership, which is working to create an environmental “Rosetta stone.” The software will allow systematic collection of data in the field, documenting aspects like environmental threats, the need for interventions, and other indices. UPS drivers now have portable data collectors; why not give the same thing to people on the front lines of environmental field research? By bringing several organizations together, Benetech can insure that the program meets most users’ needs, obviating the need for each group to develop its own custom software.

Lubber’s organization is a coalition of more than 80 investor groups, environmental organizations, and investment funds that pressures major corporations on environmental and social issues. Several years ago, Ceres created the Global Reporting Initiative, which has become a standard for companies reporting on their environmental and social performance. By focusing on stakeholder engagement, Ceres uses shareholder resolutions to deliver the message that climate change carries financial risk, and that it makes good business sense to focus on solutions. Investors are “not approaching this as advocates, or as environmentalists, they’re fiduciaries,” says Lubber. Ceres hopes to change the way all investors evaluate companies, by making their social and environmental performance public, transparent, and relevant. Their Investor Network on Climate Risk is an alliance of institutional investors that collectively manages $1.3 trillion.

In recognizing these and other social entrepreneurs, the Skoll Foundation is betting that investing in the power of innovation can create systemic change. “We’re rebelling against the prevailing idea that individuals can’t make a difference,” Skoll says. The Foundation is giving $13 million to social entrepreneurs this year, and is intent on building the infrastructure necessary to sustain and nurture this burgeoning movement. In addition to the Skoll Awards, they’re investing in scholarship, research, and training for social entrepreneurship at the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford.

This movement appeals to the new generation of philanthropists — people like Skoll, Steve Case, Bill Gates. Entrepreneurs themselves, they recognize the mavericks they support as people who are just as driven as they are, with the modest goal of changing the world. This wave of philanthropists recognizes that, as Sir Ronald Cohen, the founder of Britain’s first venture capital firm, put it at the Skoll World Forum, “entrepreneurial activity creates huge wealth, but it also creates huge inequality.” Bill Drayton — the founder and CEO of Ashoka who was elected a MacArthur fellow for his delineation of the phenomenon of social entrepreneurship — says that there need not be a “monopoly of initiative,” but that many great ideas and would-be social entrepreneurs are being strangled by the lag in financial investment into their projects.

Like Clara Barton starting the Red Cross, these new entrepreneurs are applying imagination, persistence, and systems to creating new institutions and social change. It can’t happen fast enough.