MEDFORD, Mass. — Jeff Skoll has led, by most standards, a successful life. He’s a Stanford Business School graduate, the first employee (and once president) of eBay, the founder of Participant Media and a billionaire. But this Canadian engineer and movie producer has lived by another, potentially more validating set of standards. Instead of hoarding his money, buying yachts or private islands in the Caribbean, he shares his wealth.
Through philanthropy, the production of topical, thought-provoking films and the generous investments of the Skoll Foundation, Skoll works on multiple levels to address the world’s major problems. Of these, especially within the Skoll Foundation, poverty is a priority issue.
Skoll founded the Skoll Foundation–headquartered in Palo Alto, California–in 1999. Since then, he has hoped to remedy global problems by concentrating on his mission and tactic: “Investing in, connecting and celebrating social entrepreneurs and the innovators who help solve the world’s most pressing problems.”
To do this, the Skoll Foundation awards five full-time scholarships to entrepreneurs every year. While over 74 entrepreneurial organizations have received funding since the foundation’s conception, there isn’t an end in sight. As long as poverty rears its ugly head, Jeff Skoll will rear his impassioned, retributive one.
Many of the innovative organizations the Skoll Foundation has awarded and given a global spotlight work toward poverty reduction. Global Witness, Institute for One World Health, VisionSpring and Friends International are such examples. According to the Skoll Foundation’s selection criteria, each awarded organization demonstrates five key characteristics: leverage (impact versus resources, bang versus buck, etc.), respect, responsibility, tough-minded optimism and innovation. Scholarship winners, like Skoll himself, bind rigor, creativity and hope to pursue change in bleak circumstances.
There are, however, certain obstacles to the Skoll Foundation’s and its partners’ efficacy. According to Harvey Koh, the director of the multinational management consulting firm Monitor Deloitte, based out of Cambridge, Massachusetts, social enterprises can excite more often than they make significant change. “When our colleagues studied 439 market-based solutions in Africa,” he cites in a recent article, “they found that a mere 13% of them had achieved significant scale.”
While organizations built on social missions can have “tremendous” impact, the environment often “doesn’t support them, and sometimes is outright hostile.” Prescription medication, for example, is a blessing for impoverished African farmers, but without pharmacies, doctors or delivery systems on sight, money thrown into pill production isn’t as advantageous as it sounds. Skoll understands the inherent difficulty in creating successful and lasting social enterprises.
To be successful they must, in part, embody Skoll’s criteria of leverage, respect, and more. But in addition, they must also have the money. Skoll helps these organizations in surmounting that final hurdle, providing them with the financial means to be thorough and effective.
This requires not only cash but also the vision to see both potential and challenge and to recognize innovations and shortcomings. The Skoll Foundation makes great efforts to hone their vision, analyzing issue ecosystems and inflection points, deliberating for peace and prosperity. By studying Skoll’s standards and his award recipients’ impact, maybe future entrepreneurs will be inspired. Even without the funds to finance a million dollar enterprise, maybe they will learn to have “leverage” themselves.