Dotcom multimillionaire Jeff Skoll has donated £4.1m to start up a centre for social entrepreneurship. He tells Jim Kelly why

Henry Ford wasn't but Florence Nightingale was, unwittingly, a classic example. The last two centuries have seen plenty of others, from Maria Montessori and her child-centered school reforms to Muhammad Yunus and his "village banks" in Bangladesh, which made small loans to farmers. But while so-called social entrepreneurs (SEs) - whose drive to change society comes before the profit motive - may have existed in the past, they appear to be coming of age in the 21st century. Europe is to get its first centre of social entrepreneurship at Oxford University's Saïd Business School.

The centre is a feather in the cap for the fledgling school - founded in 1996 - and its enterprising dean, Professor Anthony Hopwood. Funding for the school comes from Jeff Skoll, the founder of the online auction company e-Bay, who is giving $7.5m (£4.1m) to the project. Skoll is signed up to the social enterprise movement, and is clearly a genuine convert. A slight, polite, intense Canadian, he began to notice some similarities among the people who came forward for help when he set up the philanthropic Skoll Foundation in 1999: "We had different people coming in looking for grants. Some just resonated with me for a number of reasons - primarily these folks were incredibly entrepreneurial, as hard working and innovative as anyone in the for-profit sector: and that was saying a lot because this was the middle of the internet boom years. But these folks were just as dedicated to their social vision."

For Skoll it is paramount that an SE starts with a vision, and then uses entrepreneurial skills to expand that vision so that it can have a wide, and lasting, impact - just as Florence Nightingale managed to transfer her ideas on limiting the spread of disease in Crimean field hospitals to Britain's pioneering health services.

Cynics might suggest social enterprise is just the latest vogue, a reaction to the string of corporate scandals which have pushed CSR (Corporate and Social Responsibility) up the agenda. Is it surprising that hard-pressed business schools, suffering from the downturn after the dotcom boom, should embrace social entrepreneurship just when the public sector offers real growth and opportunity?

But Skoll's vision is far grander than the promotion of a new sub-species of MBA. He sees the centre at Oxford as a launch pad for a revolution which is needed to tackle problems of poverty and inequality in a sustainable way, where the traditional, profit-driven entrepreneur has failed.

"It has struck me that these people - who will often stop at nothing to achieve their social goals - are great agents of change. I have come to believe that these people will be the driving force in the world in the next 100 years. I think this movement is the single most important innovation which is occurring in our present day and is our best hope for survival as a species," says the multi-millionaire philanthropist.

Skoll's investment is significant, but it will not unbalance the Saïd's more traditional courses. Every year, five Skoll students will be funded for the one-year MBA programme - and the funding will include covering the costs of an enterprise project. The courses will also be open to all MBA students at the school. There will be a work forum this spring at Oxford, an endowed lectureship, and three posts for visiting fellows. Skoll says he chose Oxford because of the international nature of its student body, and the fact that, as a new starter in the business school sector, the Saïd will be able to put social entrepreneurship at the heart of the curriculum - rather than creating a US-style summer school bolt-on.

Hopwood recognises that mixing social entrepreneurs with their for-profit brethren may have some risks. "There is a danger that there is going to be a slippage factor. Somebody comes along, picks up the knowledge, and then starts to work for a big pharmaceutical firm. But there will be slippage the other way too," he says.

Sally Osberg, chief executive of the Skoll Foundation, believes a sound business education is vital, plus some added expertise on how to raise investment without access to the capital markets. "It's important to remember that most social entrepreneurs are building an organisation and it has the same challenges as any other business," she says.

The social entrepreneur is often alone, like most leaders, says Osberg. The Skoll Foundation has created an online community for them which now has 2,000 users.

Prof Hopwood has high hopes for the Skoll Centre, and sees it as a compliment to Oxford's world famous Rhodes Scholarship programme. He envisages Skoll scholars returning to their countries to institute sustainable change. Academically he believes the Oxford must map out the emerging discipline of social enterprise, understand best practice, and work out some notion of how to assess its impact.

Hopwood hopes some of his students will "do-a-Jeff": make their millions and then move into social enterprise. Above all he sees SE as a discipline based on action and lasting change. "CSR is more of a fashionable thing, engaging with social rhetoric and less with social action. This is about how we get people to be good social actors - rather than just giving them vocabularies about how they will change the world."