John Marks is president and founder of Search for Common Ground, a nonprofit conflict-resolution organization with offices in 23 countries, and also founder and head of Common Ground Productions. During the conference, he spoke of the invaluable service that the Skoll Foundation and particularly the Skoll World Forum offers to social entrepreneurs. Through the Skoll network, fellows feel like they are part of a community of like-minded people, and they receive ideas, encouragement, and support that spurs them on—that network, along with Skoll funding, has been critical to the development of his own organization, Search for Common Ground.
I asked John how he got to where he is today. He had a fascinating story to tell. At the age of 27, he worked on the Case-Church amendment, which helped to end the war in Vietnam. As he began to start what later became Search for Common Ground, he attempted to take a new approach to foreign policy. The end of the Cold War enabled his organization to expand, and people began to take its work more seriously. He also said that if he had known what it takes to start an organization from the outset, he might not have done so.
When I asked him what he thinks are the essential components of a successful social enterprise, he said that it was important to be in tune with the needs of humanity, and then to just take action when the opportunity presents itself. He quoted Napoleon: “One becomes engaged, and then one sees what the possibilities are.” He contends that the most important quality in the social entrepreneurship field is to have clarity of vision, and that if your vision is strong, everything else falls into place—even if the path is not clear, it becomes clear through action. For this, the ability to problem-solve is essential, and flexibility and lateral thinking are key.
John also places great value on building new structures. It is important, he said, not to over-plan or to create too many institutional blocks. While he understands the need for administrative structures and accountability, he insisted one should not be a slave to them. Sometimes unintended results can be just as important and interesting as the intended ones. For example, his organization was working on popularizing the use of mediation in Morocco. As a direct result, the Moroccan Parliament passed a law that set up a legal structure to implement mediation across the entire country. This was an unforeseen outcome, not mentioned in the original proposal, that turned out to be the most important upshot of the whole project.
I found John’s vision for himself and for the world incredibly inspiring. He talked about the role that the martial art aikido has played in his life. He suggested that rather than merely responding to a punch like you do in boxing, aikido encourages you to accept energy, blend the energy, and transform that energy. This is a core metaphor for how John approaches conflict resolution and also life.
Check back next week for more interviews, including one with Mark Kramer, co-founder and managing director of FSG and the author of influential publications on corporate social responsibility, catalytic philanthropy, strategic evaluation, impact investing, and adaptive leadership.