This past week, for the eighth year in a row, Bill Clinton's grand social innovation conference brought more than 1,000 global philanthropists, social entrepreneurs, celebrities, CEOs, heads of state, and cause advocates to Manhattan to pledge millions of new dollars to social good projects around the globe. But the tone of this year’s gathering—with its theme, “Designing for Impact”—was impatient.
Since the first Clinton Global Initiative in 2005, delegates have made nearly 2,300 commitments to improve the lives of more than 400 million people in more than 180 countries, creating new projects to ease hunger, stem environmental damage, and lift hundreds of thousands of people out of poverty. But in the face of the global economic crisis, Clinton said, delegates need to make an ever-stronger case for their efforts. Social impact is harder to map than dollars and cents, he said, and it is much less politically viable unless it can scale.
“How come we can never seem to take solutions to problems to scale?" he asked during opening remarks. "How can we take what we know to work, and scale it quicker? How can countries come together amid all these cuts in foreign assistance? How can we plan and execute our way out of the current economic crisis without backsliding on all of these humanitarian goals?" At one point during an opening panel with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Queen Rania of Jordan, and World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, Clinton challenged Wal-Mart President and CEO Michael Duke to open a Wal-Mart in Libya—right now. Duke neatly side-stepped the question, responding that his company already operates in "high-risk areas" but not yet in Tripoli, the Libyan capital.
It is not enough, Clinton added, to have good ideas and to launch them. Pushing harder for proof of impact is an imperative—"not simply to make good,” he said, but to be able to make a starker, sustainable difference more broadly.
Among conference highlights:
• Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she is moving the nation’s foreign aid system from aid spending to investment. "You cannot have development in today's world without partnership with the private sector, and without the cooperation of other governments," she said, citing a program in Sierra Leone in which more than 1,700 women serve as health monitors, checking up on clinics and reporting problems to the government so they can be resolved. Clinton also called out "the elites in every country” who do not invest in their local communities. "There are rich people everywhere,” she said, “and yet they do not contribute to the growth of their own countries. They do not invest in public schools and public hospitals and other kinds of development internally." It is time, she said, "to start telling powerful people things they don't want to hear" about the need to create transparency in government budgets; to bring corruption to light, and to create "fair taxation models" that mobilize all citizens to contribute to improving conditions at home. “I hear from leaders all over the world that … they don't want to turn to other nations forever for assistance. I look forward to the day when our assistance is no longer needed.”
• The Mulago Foundation's Kevin Starr called on delegates to rethink philanthropy as impact capital. "Philanthropy at its best,” Starr said, “is about making good things happen that wouldn't have happened otherwise. If philanthropy is to drive change at really big scale, we need for philanthropy to function like a market for impact. That means we have to demand that organizations measure their impact and report on it, but also that we have to give organizations the resources they need to do that well." Starr added: "I used to think it was distasteful to put philanthropy into something that was supposed to make money eventually for somebody else," Starr told delegates. "And I've come around 180 degrees on that. If something has real social impact and it could go big via the market, then using philanthropy to get it to the point where it is market-ready is a real home run." Acumen Fund CEO Jacqueline Novogratz said she is seeing such philanthropy-business partnerships now in health care, in water, in agriculture, and in alternative energy—all partnering "in ways I would not have imagined when I started doing this."
• Skoll Foundation CEO Sally Osberg announced that her foundation will be launching a new measurement standard for social good projects in March, at its annual gathering in Oxford, a Global Social Performance Index. Osberg said the GSP Index will have 67 indicators; Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter is helping to develop the methodology. “There is a lot that can be measured in this world," Osberg said, "such as forest coverage, access to piped water, things that make a difference to people in the countries and in the local context of these projects. We hope it will provide a new way to measure social impact on the world."
• The Elders, the Ford Foundation, the NoVo Foundation, and Nike—some of the same people behind the successful Girl Effect campaigns of 2008 and 2010 to promote the advancement of women and girls around the globe, committed to jointly establish a new initiative called Girls Not Brides, a global partnership to end child marriage. The four organizations committed $3 million to establish a secretariat to identify activities to end child marriage in priority countries and to set up a network of donors to support programs to end child marriage worldwide.
• Seattle architect Jason McLennan, founder of the International Living Building Institute, said his organization has built a six-story office building in Seattle that meets the world's most stringent and progressive green building standards. Interviewed by former CNN host Campbell Brown, McLennan said all materials in the building have been scrubbed of toxins and that the building is powered totally by the sun. "In the least sunny city in the United States, it will get all of its energy from a photovoltaic array on its roof. It will get all the water it needs from the sky. It will treat the water in the building. It has six floors of composting toilets, with no need for a sewer connection, and this is a Class A office building, asking normal rental market rates, and it's almost all leased up—and it's blowing everyone's minds," McLennan said. He says ILBI has 150 living building projects in several countries around the world that are either under construction or in design.
• Chelsea Clinton, in a rare public interview, discussed everything from her parents to her own advocacy work to the crisis-mapping social media enterprise, Ushahidi. The Stanford alum says she is "optimistic about politics," and hopes that more young people will ultimately go to the ballot box and vote for candidates "who will write the laws and scale the solutions for the change they want to see." Watch the video.