The Skoll Foundation helps bring to scale models and approaches that move the needle on injustice and human suffering. There are many labels affixed to results-oriented approaches to philanthropy—venture philanthropy, philanthropreneurship, impact investing, collective impact. In the end, the terms matter far less than the underlying values and practices.
The Foundation has three primary roles: investors, partners, platform developers, and event producers in a vast social network supporting connections and collaborations that accelerate returns on those investments; and partners in a communications enterprise working to ensure that the stories of social entrepreneurs driving big change reach influencers, partners, and supporters.
Investing in social entrepreneurs has many parallels to investing in business entrepreneurs. The Foundation’s due diligence focuses as much on how social entrepreneurs develop, test, adapt, and replicate their social change models, as on the merits of the models they are working on. It starts with a really deep understanding of the forces sustaining the undesirable or unjust equilibrium, and from that, insights about opportunities to create a far more just and sustainable status quo.
This audio selection features excerpts of Sally’s conversations with Cristina Yoon, Skoll Foundation’s Director of Grants Management and its second employee, and Suzana Grego, Skoll Foundation’s Director of Public Engagement and Communication.
Suzana Grego: People are grasping, increasingly, this idea of equilibrium change. But how do we get from definition to action, and get more people from definition to action faster?
Sally Osberg: In I think it was 2008, I remember speaking at the forum and…what I ended up talking about was the importance of collaboration and that any organization, no matter how catalytic, is going to be sufficient to the challenge of making and really driving large-scale change. And so that, I believe, has really started to take hold as, as an idea. And I think just to talk about collaboration is not helpful, but the reality that different institutions and enterprises—and even functions within society—have to find ways to leverage one another’s specific value in accelerating change is really important.
I think of, for example, deforestation and the role of Imazon. Imazon’s insight was to leverage the satellite technological in order to expose real-time deforestation. They also understood, with Marina Silva having come in as environmental minister, that they had a real toehold into policy that they hadn’t had. They understood that media would be a powerful tool. And so it was that constellation of actors—the policymakers, the media, the states within Brazil who were shamed because they were all of the sudden on a list—that exposed their deficiency at monitoring deforestation in their own bailiwicks.
And so it was all those forces doing what they did best, but working toward this imperative to bring down deforestation and to advance progress against climate change and against destruction of this massive, massively important resource.To write off policy is crazy. To write off the role of institutions is benighted. And yet people hold this idea that entrepreneurs are impatient and they will find ways around government institutions or that they will be much more effective catalysts of change than corporations, which are beholden to shareholders or beholden to profits. And the truth is the most effective social entrepreneurs are able to harness this forces and that’s, I think, profoundly important as a way of understanding the force multipliers that social entrepreneurs are.
Cristina Yoon: I don’t think many people know about how we became the Skoll Foundation that we know today with the invest, connect and celebrate framework, and the focus on large-scale change. And to me, much of it became really clear through the branding process. Could talk a little bit about that?
Sally Osberg: Sure, about three years into the foundation’s life, Jeff told me that he thought it was time for the foundation to really go through a branding process. And I remember thinking this was the worst damn idea I’d ever heard. To me, branding was all about trumpeting your image and bragging about yourself. And I thought it was, you know, not appropriate for an organization that was trying to make good things happen in the world. And I also, having run a non-profit organization for many years, I thought it could waste a lot of money.
And so I went out to find three branding consultants on the cheap and brought them in. And they all interviewed, and it was one bomb after another. So at the end of this fiasco, we brought Siegel+Gale in. And, of course, Noah blew everybody’s socks off, because he really did his homework on what we’d done in our first three years, and he could see the innovation. He could see the vision. He could see the differentiation of the decisions we were already making, everything from the Urgency Fund to the fact that we were identifying change makers. And we had just begun to realize they were social entrepreneurs, although we were absolutely right in saying we didn’t have that frame and that meme at the beginning. We didn’t.
And yet, it was very clear to me from the kinds of folks Jeff was attracted to that, that he was looking for people with entrepreneurial drive, discipline, focus, people who were every bit the entrepreneur as any Silicon Valley entrepreneur like him, but who were focused on attacking societal challenges.
So we didn’t call them social entrepreneurs, but we had the frame all the same. And Noah really tapped into that, and he was obviously the right person to work with us. And, and of course, one of the first things he did was landscape the field; you know, try to understand this landscape and where there might be unmet needs.
And the unmet need was to fund folks who already were well past proof of concept, but who with an infusion of capital and with some uh greater visibility could really forge forward and dramatically accelerate their impact. And so that became an idea—that we would be a mezzanine investor in social entrepreneurs.
And then, the other factors were understanding just how important storytelling was to Jeff and that became the celebrate piece. And then back to the community and peer learning—and that was the connect piece. So it was drive change, invest in connecting and celebrating social entrepreneurs.
And then a few years later, we realized that we needed to add in the innovators who helped them solve the world’s most pressing problems. So the mission at the beginning didn’t have the other innovators part and didn’t have the most pressing problems part, but the “invest, connect and celebrate social entrepreneurs” has stood the test of time.