Matthew Arnold called Oxford the city of dreaming spires, a reference to the timeless beauty of the harmonious architecture of the colleges spread across the landscape—but also to the centrality of thought that Oxford expresses for all of Britain. Every year, at the annual Skoll World Forum, those dreaming spires take on another meaning as leaders in social entrepreneurship from around the world gather at the University of Oxford’s Said Business School.

The forum is the brainchild of Jeffrey Skoll, a young entrepreneur who became a billionaire in the moment of eBay’s initial public offering in 1998. The Canadian-born Skoll was the online auction giant’s second employee and its first president. In the years since his eBay billions made him one of the Internet industry’s richest men, Skoll has turned most of his attention to social causes. He has funded feature films such as Al Gore’s Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth, and, through the work of the Skoll Foundation, has been an ambitious funder in the growing field of social entrepreneurship and the convener of the annual forum amid the gates and walls of Oxford. Along with Pierre Omidyar, eBay’s original founder, Skoll has attempted to turn the very marketplace-democracy that powers the best online businesses into a force for social change.

Indeed, through his foundation and the Skoll Centre at Oxford, Skoll has emerged as the leading light of the social entrepreneurship movement, which began as early as the 1980s, when technically savvy entrepreneurial types such as Ashoka founder Bill Drayton and Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus first sought to bring their brand of disruptive change to the world’s problems.

At the World Forum I attended in the warm British spring of 2007, Skoll spoke under the dome of Christopher Wren’s seventeenth-century Sheldonian hall at Oxford’s town center and remarked candidly on "a changing time for philanthropy." He suggested that while much of the focus of the past several years is on bringing business practices to philanthropy, buzzwords like philanthropreneurs may miss the point: It is not just about a change in the nature of philanthropy, "but a movement from institutions to individuals." Individuals, he suggested, can move faster and take more chances: "Wherever you find humanity at its worst in the world, you’ll find a social entrepreneur working for change."

Indeed, there is considerable glamour attached to social causes. While social entrepreneurship often involves starting small and leveraging scant resources to create change, whether in environmental science, feeding the poor, or facing down disease, any movement like this needs star power, and at Skoll that incandescence is provided by people like rock star Peter Gabriel, chief Larry Brilliant, and Queen Rania Al-Abdullah of Jordan. Each year, the social entrepreneurs bring with them stories of human struggle from the field, ideas about innovation in programming and finance, and seemingly boundless optimism about fomenting social change. They also bring some very real-world concerns to the "dreaming spires" of social entrepreneurship. At the various panels and convocations, they worry aloud about funding and sustainability, attracting talent, and working with governments. Many dare to puzzle about the concept of social entrepreneurship itself—whether it can grow and thrive beyond its current buzzword status, whether it can truly change the seemingly hidebound worlds of foundations and established philanthropy.

Time and again in the Skoll sessions, committed social entrepreneurs talk about how hard it is to raise funds (donations, capital, "investments") for innovative ideas that do not fit into what foundations and philanthropists believe about funding projects. Outside of the self-funding ventures in microenterprise, the money it takes to fire up major movements such as tackling global warming, eradicating poverty in Africa and south Asia, preserving delicate environments, and empowering poor women generally comes from fundraising.

Jacqueline Novogratz, CEO of the Acumen Fund, admits that fundraising remains central—that social enterprises "always came back, somewhat reluctantly, to philanthropy—to finding a few big supporters." Nothing I have heard here changes that formula, particularly for startups; entrepreneurs have always had to battle, to scratch, to promise their firstborn to get the capital they need to launch something. For social entrepreneurs, that means major donors. Said Novogratz: "Look, we need philanthropic money still."