Jeff Skoll’s Billion-Dollar Plan To Save The World
This story appears in the October 8, 2012 issue of Forbes.
Photo credit: Jeff Minton for Forbes
Four years ago Jeff Skoll arrived via 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 with the Waura and other tribes of the Amazon 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–poor education, lack of health care, deforestation–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, with a heavy emphasis on poverty issues, Skoll can tick off plenty of successes. Due to the efforts of Skoll-funded groups, everyone in Gambia (pop. 1.8 million) has access to health care; deaths from water-borne diseases have declined by 85% in 700 villages in the state of Orissa, India; 6,000 communities in seven African countries have declared an end to female genital cutting; 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 when we meet at his foundation’s office in Palo Alto, Calif.
Skoll 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 (see FORBES , Dec. 19, 2011) . What the shy, Canadian-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, cofounder 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 with the Waura people in the Brazilian Amazon.
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 a regular studio’s do, and that’s exactly the point (see box, p. 112).
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 U.S. education system. The Gates Foundation is also codeveloping 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 Gatessays in an e-mail. 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.”
What drives a middle-class kid from Toronto (he’s now a U.S. citizen as well, ranking number 120 on this year’s Forbes 400) to spend a billion dollars-plus fixing the world’s problems? It starts with a dose of anxiety, the near-death of his father and the mores of the Jewish community in which he was raised. By the time Skoll had his bar mitzvah, he had heard countless times the phrase tikkun olam , a core Jewish ideal that means “to heal the world.” “Growing up with that, it gets built into one’s psychology,” Skoll says.
Skoll read avidly as a child. On camping trips with his sister and parents he leaned toward Huxley and Orwell. “By a very early age it had struck me that a lot of the trends in the world would be scary: not enough resources to go around, terrible new weapons, potentially devastating wars,” he says.
He wanted to write books to get the message out about these dangers, but the pragmatist in him knew he needed to make money first. It turned out there were limits to how much of a priority money would be. His father was diagnosed with kidney cancer a few years before Skoll entered the University of Toronto for an electrical engineering degree. Skoll’s father sold his industrial-chemicals business to his business partner for not a lot of money and moved to the Caribbean. “My dad always wanted to sail. They lived on a boat for eight years,” says Skoll. “He said something at the time that was very influential. He said he was afraid he hadn’t done the things he wanted to with his life. That was really a wake-up call. Without my father being sick [he's alive today] when I was a kid, I might not have done this.”
Skoll worked his way through university pumping gas; in 1987 he started a computer rental company, from which people kept stealing computers. An attempt to do systems engineering consulting did better but wasn’t the hit he wanted. “I realized very quickly that I had no idea what I was doing,” he says.
He left Canada for an M.B.A. at Stanford and, through friends in Silicon Valley, met Pierre Omidyar. Omidyar approached Skoll in 1995 about creating an online auction company. Skoll told him it didn’t sound like a good idea. Not long afterward Omidyar told him revenue was doubling every month and he needed help. Skoll was eBay’s first employee and first president.
Skoll took charge of the back end of eBay operations, wrote the business plan and helped with hiring to keep up with the torrid pace of growth. “We were in a constant sprint,” Omidyar says in an e-mail. Three years later Skoll became a billionaire soon after the IPO. “All of a sudden I not only had the money to start to write the stories, but I realized I could do other things with it,” he says. He started eBay’s foundation with just a few million dollars. He thought he could do more on his own.
In 1999 he created the Skoll Foundation with $34 million. It was a part-time effort, making ad hoc grants. A skiing accident that year left Skoll with his back so badly hurt he couldn’t sit down. Throughout 2000 he took meetings lying on a conference table. The discomfort was a big reason for leaving eBay in January 2001. Now he could focus on expanding his foundation quickly.
Skoll hired Sally Osberg, the founding executive director of the Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose, Calif., to run his foundation. When they went to see her mentor, John Gardner, Lyndon Johnson’s Secretary of Health, Education & Welfare and before that president of the Carnegie Foundation, his advice was to “bet on good people doing good things,” a phrase that stuck with Skoll.
Skoll and Osberg heard from entrepreneurs that they were having difficulty getting past the early stages. Skoll streamlined the process: Offer grants with minimal paperwork, supply three years of funding (ranging from $440,000 to $2 million) and deliver help on media and strategic advice. To improve the business skills of social entrepreneurs, Skoll pledged $8 million in 2003 to create the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at the University of Oxford. The foundation pays for five entrepreneurs a year to take M.B.A. classes to help their organizations grow. These Skoll Scholars also run an annual forum where many of Skoll’s entrepreneurs end up cutting deals. Kiva’s Flannery is working with five others he met at the forum. Says Andrea Coleman, cofounder of African health care nonprofit Riders for Health, a 2006 awardee: “Sometimes we think we should just fundraise for these other amazing people.”
A slice of the Amazonian region Skoll’s foundation is working to protect.
The Skoll Foundation gets over 250 applications a year and usually makes four to six grants–last year it made four. Skoll and Osberg developed a rigorous application system, starting with an eligibility quiz. Applicants also have to line up with one of their causes, which is a big list: the environment, health, human rights, ?institutional responsibility, peace and security, and economic and social equity. And the timing of your cause has to be right, with requirements such as a lack of civil wars raging in your country.
Ann Cotton runs the Campaign for Female Education, or Camfed, a 19-year-old U.K. nonprofit that has helped 1.7 million children in five African countries attend school and lift their economic status. Skoll grants of $3.6 million since 2005 helped Camfed expand its program from 10,700 girls a year to 25,400 girls, as well as attract larger multimillion-dollar donations from the MasterCard Foundation and the U.K. Department for International Development. “I do believe investment from Skoll at that time was a major catalyst,” says Cotton. “We are at another level.”
Three years ago Skoll pledged $100 million to the Skoll Global Threats Fund, which tackles the knottiest of problems–pandemics, climate change, Middle East conflict, nuclear weapons and water–through supported advocacy groups. With the Rockefeller, Packard, Hewlett and other foundations, Skoll set up Climate Nexus, a swift-response team that fact-checks media reports and research studies on global warming. The Global Threats fund is backing improved efforts globally to test for pathogens and detect outbreaks more quickly.
Skoll still has decades of philanthropy to go and plenty more he wants to do. He has been living in Beverly Hills for the last seven years but over the summer moved back to Silicon Valley with his girlfriend, Stephanie. H e’s hoping to have children and wants to leave them some of his fortune but not a lot. In 2010 Bill Gates called and asked Skoll to sign the Giving Pledge, and Skoll easily said yes. “If I die today,” he says, “everything goes to the foundations.”