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Our Odyssey: What Winning the Skoll Award Has Meant for Blue Ventures

June 14, 2016

By Vik Mohan - Blue Ventures

In 2015 Blue Ventures won the highest award in our sector, the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship. A year later, has anything changed? Can winning a major award really be transformational for an organization?

Amid a blur of meetings, keynotes, and discussions, the 2016 Skoll World Forum has come and gone. Yet this year felt very different: we had a clearer idea of what to expect before we arrived, and once there we were reconnecting with people who we now call friends.

It also felt different because we’re no longer the same organization that we were last year when we won the award. Returning to Oxford for the 2016 Forum provided a useful reference point for taking stock of the changes. In a world where I rarely have a professional conversation without mentioning “impact” (making it, measuring it, communicating it) it’s timely to reflect upon the impact that winning the Skoll Award has had on our team.

What changes have we seen?

Winning the Skoll Award has given us something that we’ve never before experienced: an opportunity to step back from daily operations and think more consciously about the sort of future we want to build. In this empowered state, we committed to reaching three million people in five years: a target that continues to excite and frighten us; a target that simultaneously helps to focus our collective efforts and keeps us awake at night.

We’ve been able to say “no” to development opportunities for the first time, and are increasingly discerning around investors whose interests may not align with our own, and whose support—no matter how generous—could distract us from our core mission.

Being a young organization, with mostly young staff in the early stages of their careers, managing organizational change was a bit of a mystery to us. What should the new Blue Ventures look like? How are we going to get there? Thanks to the guidance and support of our board and others, we spent much of the last year laying the foundations of an organization that could reach three million people.

We have done our best to genuinely listen to our 110 colleagues across five countries, learning from their experiences and trying to understand their challenges and concerns. A year on, responding to what we’ve been hearing continues to shape our strategy.

Recognizing that we are in a period of significant change, we have worked hard to clarify our organizational culture and strengthen our management and leadership processes. We’ve also focused on working out how best to test and scale our models.

Of course this remains an iterative process, and we’re continually refining our approach, but as each month passes we achieve greater clarity and better understand our “pathway to scale.” This has led to us building the additional competencies we need in order to meet our target and measure our impact.

We’ve developed other competencies too. We’ve always been quite proud of our ability to communicate about our work, but thanks to the opportunity to work with the Sundance Institute on the Stories of Change initiative, we’re getting much better at telling our story. More importantly, we’re thinking more clearly about how we can enable the communities we support to do the same.

And we’re growing in confidence. Although difficult to measure, there has been a palpable shift in the ambition of many of our team members, and in the organization as a whole. These are exciting times in our sector, and we understand the role that we play.

What challenges have we experienced?

Clearly it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Many of us are exhausted from this change and growth, and sometimes the responsibility we feel to reach our target weighs heavily on us.

Some colleagues have voiced concerns about the pace of change and growth, in particular that this might compromise the underlying values that hold us together.

At times there has been a disconnect between the ideas and aspirations of those building our strategy and our field teams who witness the grinding reality of the environmental challenges we face, the unrelenting operational hurdles of program implementation.

Related to this has been the tension between our agenda for scaling our impact and ensuring we continue to provide adequate support for our existing programs and partners. As our gaze turns towards new territories, we need to honor our commitment to the communities we still serve, and ensure that the places where we learned (and still showcase) our approach continue to host excellent programs.

The way we’ve responded to these challenges is consistent with the approach we’ve always taken: we continue to listen to what our colleagues are telling us, and adapt our approach as we learn. Maintaining our integrity as an organization, holding on to our values and achieving lasting, meaningful impact is ultimately more important to us than hitting our target. I suspect that giving our team permission to do what we do best is the way we’re most likely to hit our target anyway.

Our “pathway to scale” doesn’t generally involve us implementing new projects ourselves. It hinges on supporting partners to adopt our models, and this raises the question of “model fidelity.” If we’re not implementing, how can we ensure that these models are being replicated accurately? What level of model fidelity is important, and how much data can we realistically expect partners to feed back?

Strictly speaking we’re trying to replicate results, not models. But since we’ve never embarked on scaling models across such diverse contexts before, how we replicate most effectively in these situations remains an unanswered question.

Returning to the Skoll World Forum

Among the myriad of things I’ve taken away from this year’s event, three stand out for me:

I’m grateful for the opportunity to reconnect with the Skoll community. I have taken comfort from the fact that so many organizations face the same sorts of challenges as us. I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to brainstorm solutions, and have been humbled by the support I’ve experienced from this community of changemakers.

Once again, I’m left feeling deeply moved to act, and come away even more committed to the work of Blue Ventures. Being surrounded by so many inspiring people who are making a difference in this world rubs off on you!

Finally, I am clear about what makes Blue Ventures unique: the remarkable communities we’re privileged to support in conservation; our willingness to listen and engage with problems as communities experience them; our strong mission focus and adherence to our organizational values; our willingness to innovate and think for ourselves about how to address the challenges we see.

I’m seeing more clearly than ever that these attributes have enabled us to attract and get the most out of exceptional colleagues, helping us to mobilize communities to rebuild fisheries.

Alasdair Harris of Blue Ventures accepts a 2015 Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship.

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