How Jeff Skoll Plans to Tackle Poverty through Social Entrepreneurship
Image: Jeff Minton for Forbes
our years ago, Jeff Skoll arrived on a small plane in the depths of the Brazilian Amazon region, just in time for the Waura people’s festival of the pique fruit, where he sipped from a bucket of its bitter, bright-yellow brew. The eBay billionaire was there to see work being spearheaded by Mark Plotkin and Liliana Madrigal, whose nonprofit, Amazon Conservation Team, was teaching the scantily-clad Waura to use a GPS to map their ancestral territory and carve out a protected area free from deforestation. “It’s the neatest thing,” says Skoll, his voice rising with enthusiasm. “It’s amazing to see these tribes that have barely been contacted, running around in war paint and living in mud huts, but with GPS they figure out how to go around on their land.”
Skoll was so pleased by the results of Plotkin and Madrigal’s efforts that last year his foundation gave $1.6 million to a project with Amazon Conservation Team and two other social enterprises that Skoll backs to use GPS and satellite mapping to create “conservation corridors” that will protect 114 million acres of the Amazon from deforestation. It’s a long-held goal for Plotkin and Madrigal, who have been working with indigenous tribes to protect the rain forest for nearly three decades. Skoll expects significant progress in three years.
There are thousands of people in the world like Plotkin and Madrigal, inspiring social entrepreneurs who dream up innovative solutions to pressing problems and then act on them. Jeff Skoll is their financier. As eBay’s first president, Skoll became a billionaire at age 33 shortly after the auction site went public in 1998. Like all good entrepreneurs, he was born with a knack for spotting the unmet need. Social entrepreneurs need money, media exposure and a network for collaboration.
The Skoll Foundation has been providing all three since the days when social entrepreneurship was just an emerging trend. Skoll has given $342 million in grants to social entrepreneurs, more than any other funder. Before the Skoll Foundation, social entrepreneurs with a bit of a track record had a hard time raising money from big foundations because of their onerous paperwork, short-term funding and inability to abide changing plans along the way. Skoll understood as a web entrepreneur that money to effect big changes needs to be patient. “I wouldn’t quite use the term ‘mezzanine financing’, but in a way it is,” says Skoll. “Our financing is the ground between seed and some sort of exit.”
In just over a decade as a full-time philanthropist, Skoll can tick off plenty of successes. Due to the efforts of Skoll-funded groups, everyone in Gambia (population 1.8 million) has access to health care; deaths from water-borne diseases have declined by 85 percent in 700 villages in Orissa; 6,000 communities in seven African countries have declared an end to female genital mutilation; and thousands of rural poor with HIV in Haiti are getting treated with antiretroviral drugs. There are at least a dozen more examples. “We’re trying to change the equilibrium,” explains Skoll.
He wasn’t the first to invest in social entrepreneurs. Credit for that goes to Bill Drayton, who founded Ashoka in 1980. Ashoka has granted $97 million to date. Jacqueline Novogratz’s Acumen Fund has invested $75 million since 2001. What the shy, Canada-born entrepreneur with intense brown eyes and a slightly nerdy air has done is to amp up the appeal of his grantees by providing more money (there’s $930 million in dry powder at the foundation) and a new twist: He smartly exploits mass media to promote his social entrepreneur’s agenda. Matt Flannery, co-founder of online microlender Kiva, still gushes about how great it was for his then nascent nonprofit to be featured on the PBS show Frontline in 2006—thanks to the Skoll Foundation, which funded the production. The onslaught of microloans from people who saw the show was so great that it crashed Kiva’s servers for three days.
Skoll’s funding of social entrepreneurs often dovetails with his other line of work, running the five-time Academy Award-winning film production company Participant Media, which produced The Help, An Inconvenient Truth and Syriana. Its movies often pursue Skoll’s social agenda, but they don’t have to make money like regular studios, and that’s exactly the point.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation put $2 million toward an online social action campaign that accompanied Participant’s 2010 documentary Waiting for ‘Superman’, which examined charter schools and the failings of the US education system. The Gates Foundation is also co-developing with Participant a TV special on America’s great teachers that will air next year. “It’s terrific working with Jeff because of his innovative approach to doing good,” Bill Gates says in an email. Adds Ashoka founder Drayton: “Entrepreneurs are different—they’re about change. They can’t stop until they’ve changed the pattern,” he explains. “Jeff has never thought about a local solution.”