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The Paradox of Global Convenings: Are They Serving The Social Entrepreneurs and Innovators As First Intended?

Oxford University London Campus
Oxford University London is meticulously charted to provide a conducive learning environment.

I spent a week in London and then Oxford for all the hullabaloo around the Skoll World Forum.  

While I couldn’t afford the ticket to get into the “real” Skoll, I appreciate the free ‘sideline’ events from Marmalade and The Sidebar, which helped intermingle the prestigious (and giant name badges) Skoll attendees with the rest of us un-badged commoners. 😉

Just being in Oxford during those dates, I was able to meet wonderful people, learn about new resources, and meet  friends I hadn’t seen in ages.  The energy in the city is palpable as Skoll, Marmalade, and The Sidebar basically take over all of Oxford. 

The Unfolding of the Paradox

I’ve been trying to wrap my head around that week, surface my key highlights, and most importantly reconcile some fundamental dichotomies.  Having run a global development conference for nearly a decade of my life (Sankalp in Africa), there are some undeniable tensions in these convenings. Of course, the impact on the environment – all the emissions from all the flights, all the single use plastic water bottles, all the paper cups that keep attendees caffeinated from one meeting to the next, and all the branding: signage, name badges, lanyards, banners, stage backdrops, etc. etc. etc., none of which gets recycled.  

Then there is the disconnect with the community you intend to serve – the bigger and more popular the conference gets, the more distorted this seems to become:  

  • Tickets become more expensive – thereby serving a different population than intended. 
  • You have more people flying in to “keep their finger on the pulse” of what’s going on, though they live elsewhere. 
  • And when all is said and done, it’s really tough to ensure the voices that you intend to represent are there and being heard.  

I acutely felt all of this when I was running Sankalp –  that took place in Nairobi! I genuinely struggled to get around this in Oxford.

I very much appreciated the many conversations and topics around systems change.

Arielle Molino attended the 2024 Skoll World Forum, a workshop where discussions on key concepts of systemic investing occurred.

There is a definite recognition during the conversations in Oxford that the unit of focus of development has been on the project, not the system or the markets.  

Furthermore, the recognition that we’ve been investing in the symptom, not the problem.  

Development money has been pouring in, yet we seem to hardly make a dent in development outcomes. 

It should be a symbiotic relationship rather than a power play

With my work now focusing on what you could call “systems change” or “ecosystem level” change with Pollinate Impact (a member-led network of impact incubators and accelerators across sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia), the fact that funders and the ‘powerholders’ recognize the need to move beyond investing in short-term projects to invest in longer-term systemic change is music to my ears!  

The more acutely I understand the challenges that incubators and accelerators face in these markets, the more I see that their problems are systemic, and that there is no shortcut.  To effect change and mature the impact incubation industry will be a long-term play.

Trust needs to be built, not given

I heard a keen focus on putting people first, – and with my focus on letting my incubator and accelerator members lead the work of Pollinate Impact – I was delighted with this!  The need for people to have the ability to exercise their agency is a key theme that resonated with me. 

Even though I couldn’t get into the room discussing trust-based philanthropy – because it was too full-  the topic came up elsewhere numerous times. The phrase, “Trust needs to be built, it is not given,” rings true with me, because the Pollinate Impact network must be built on trust for it to be effective – and this is not something that happens overnight, but something that will grow over time.   

But putting people first actually goes deeper than trust-based philanthropy – this is the ultimate giving up of control, when funders and donors ultimately admit that they don’t know the best, but that others, who are closer to (or in the context) might know how to use that money better.  

At a conference where you’re networking non-stop and people ask, “So what do you do?” it can be hard to just be a human instead of being your job.  But being human is what it’s all about!  Trust, respect, empathy – these are all fundamental values that make us human and successful.  Respect and trust go both directions, and it is critical to recognize that there is a mutual benefit between those who have the money and those who are delivering the change.  

Implementers of programs (like impact incubators and accelerators) aren’t ‘lucky’ to be getting money from donors – they are getting that money to deliver the impact that the donors are seeking.  It should be a symbiotic relationship rather than a power play.  

There is a disconnect with the community you intend to serve – the bigger and more popular the conference gets, the more distorted this seems to become.

But Is It a Power Play?

In Oxford there were about 1,500 people for Skoll, 1,500 for Marmalade, and I don’t know how many for Sidebar – that’s over 3,000 people – who were all talking about shifting the power dynamics, empowering those that are closer to the work. 

Still, we couldn’t be further from the work!  

I took two flights and two trains to get to Oxford and, fortunately, I didn’t need a UK visa due to the privilege of the passport that I hold. I had the backing of my Board, my team, and my funders to invest the money and time to attend these events.  

How many organizations have that privilege?  

Now don’t get me wrong – there were a lot of organizations and representatives from the Global South, but it was still a very privileged group.  

We want to shift power dynamics, but you have to be in the seat of power to talk about it.  

How ironic.  

It’s not just the attendees who are talking about this – it’s how we’re talking about it; with very Western-centric perspectives.  It’s hard not to have that orientation with dynamics being what they are in Oxford.  

One concrete example of this is the increasing recognition of the importance of networks in the conversations in Oxford.  I was pleasantly surprised about the interest in networks and community-building until I realized that the sense of community is age-old, and far more embedded in cultural values from sub-Saharan Africa and Asia than it is in Europe and the Americas.  

Arielle and Kathleen (Kat) Bury from the Human Edge at the 2024 Skoll World Forum
Arielle and Kathleen (Kat) Bury from the Human Edge at the 2024 Skoll World Forum. Friends who haven't seen one another in ages, connect at the 2024 Skoll World Forum where not only do they get to learn together, but they also spend time together!
Building Community, Interconnectedness…Ubuntu

Building a community is a bit novel for individualistic societies, but if you think about traditional values, like Ubuntu, which is recognized in many places in sub-Saharan African countries. Ubuntu is a recognition that we are interconnected. There are similar values of interconnectedness in some forms of Buddhism and the Vedas as well.  

My parents, who have been living in the same house for 40 years in Virginia, don’t know their immediate neighbors while in my neighborhood in Nairobi, my kids go in and out of the neighbor’s houses because I know there is a recognition of collective parenthood – my immediate neighbour and I share tomatoes, garlic, eggs, and milk (among many other things, over the fence) whenever needed.  It sounds quaint, but it’s just the way it is. 

There is generally a stronger value for community across the Global South than there is in Euro-centric worldviews.  The power of networks shouldn’t be novel – it’s been around for generations!  Yet, because Euro-centric conversations are leading the way, it feels like something has been ‘discovered’ – yet it was always there. 

 It’s nothing new, it’s merely recognizing that a different set of values from our own can be useful, productive, and way more impactful than going at it alone.  

Respect and trust go both directions and recognizing that there is mutual benefit between those that have the money and those who are delivering change is critical.

Perhaps this recognition from the Global North isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Maybe it’s finally reverse innovation that is coming from the Global South to the Global North – the recognition that as a collective we are far more powerful than we are alone.  


The fact that trust and accountability are the fabric on which local communities have thrived for centuries – it’s only a matter of tapping into that or extending that across to new channels of work.  

What Other Values Are We Missing?

Still, it makes me wonder.  When the conversations are being had and driven by audiences in the Global North (with privileged Global South participants contributing), what other values and ways of operating are we missing?  

It reminds me of when I was running experiential social enterprise programs for American college kids in very, very rural parts of Kenya.  These communities that hosted me and my students did not have running water or electricity – they were economically poor, but they were rich in so many other ways.  

At first, you only saw what they didn’t have, but once you stayed for a while, there was such richness in their community, their culture, and their strong familial bonds.  

So, how do we change this paradox?  

I’m not 100% sure, because there is a role to play for the Skolls, and the WEFs, and the Sankalps of the world.  

I do feel strongly however, at least from my perspective, that the voice of the impact incubators and accelerators needs to be present in these conversations – and I hope that Pollinate Impact can serve as that voice.  

As an industry body, I can say and voice things that my incubators and accelerator members can’t say. 

In that, I am and remain privileged to be able to voice these things, but it should not only be the voice of the privileged at the table.  

Otherwise, we’re losing sight of why we’re convening and who we’re convening for.

Join us in being that collective voice.  Check out our different webinars and regional events, where we work together to create lasting change.

Arielle Molino

Arielle Molino is the Chief Convener of Pollinate Impact. She has 15 years of experience in impact investing, social entrepreneurship, and non-profit sectors in Africa, India, and the United States.

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