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Kevin Starr on impact market failure at Skoll and beyond

Those who came seemed like a different breed of donors, in a different kind of mood. There is a high ratio of doers to donors at Skoll, which may explain why the donors there seemed less afraid of hanging out with doers and more serious about funding them.

As for doers, the Skoll social entrepreneurs are the kind of people who make you feel optimistic about the fate of the world, and it’s nice to see them celebrated. All the hoopla makes it that much weirder when you talk to them and find that almost all are in a continual scramble for money. Two of the organizations who’ve demonstrated big bang for the buck are in precarious financial straits and no one’s financial future is assured, no matter how well they perform.

That’s just wrong. For god’s sake, these are the rock stars, the golden ones anointed by Jeff Skoll and blessed by Archbishop Tutu. They’re not the only great ones out there, but they’re all pretty remarkable. We’ve been making a big deal out of social entrepreneurship for a decade, but even the most celebrated are still reduced to passing a tin cup. What gives?

It comes down to this: We’re all operating in a dysfunctional market for impact.

Think about it. In the for-profit world, if you make a big profit, everyone wants a piece of you. If you have a money-making idea, you need to protect it from me, or I’ll steal it. With a few hiccups here and there, capital flows toward success.

That doesn’t happen in the social sector. Real impact—our analog of profit—doesn’t make it easier to fund-raise. Good ideas sit around unused (a friend of mine referred to the social sector as “a desolate landscape of abandoned pilots”), and zombie NGO’s can operate for years without any evidence that real impact ensues. Capital does not flow efficiently toward those who know how to create change.

Last September at Elle we came across an incredibly cool invention: a messenger bag outfitted with a small, flexible solar panel, an HBLED light, a rechargeable battery pack, and a USB port. It was the brainchild of the brilliant architect Sheila Kennedy, who directs the Portable Light Project, a non-profit initiative that provides solar textile kits to empower the world’s poorest people who do not have access to electricity. Kennedy’s team works with nongovernmental organizations, providing training to women so they can integrate the technology into local textile materials using commonly available materials and their sewing and weaving skills. The results are surprising: a culturally diverse range of blankets, bags, and clothing that generate clean, sustainable energy and light, while supporting local economies. In buying these bags, you’ll not only own a one-of-a-kind designer item that will make you the envy of fashionistas and tech-geeks alike, but you’ll be benefiting charities and nongovernmental organizations that work with women and children in Haiti, Mexico and Central America, India, and Africa.

ELLE Magazine is auctioning off a variety of chic, sustainable bags that not only charge your phone, but whose proceeds benefit the Portable Light Project (FLAP), an initiative of the PopTech Accelerator.

My Secret Self/At Rest, by Olivia Jeffries

Purchase here. 15%* of the gross sale of this print goes to: Transportation Alternatives, whose mission is to reclaim New York City’s streets from the automobile, and to advocate for bicycling, walking and public transit as the best transportation alternatives.

The Working Proof seeks to promote art and social responsibility. Each print is paired with a charity of the artist’s choice, to which they donate 15% of the sale of each print - creating what they believe to be a product with not just aesthetic, but social value. Besides showcasing emerging artists and great artwork, the intent of the Working Proof is to promote a variety of charities and to expose them to new supporters through the appreciation of art and creativity. The Working Proof releases a new print once a week, on Tuesdays at 1:30 pm, EST.