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The Skoll Foundation Focuses on Social Entrepreneurship

February 2004

STANFORD GRADUATE SCHOOL OF BUSINESS—"We are entrepreneurs. We ourselves are committed to effective, systematic change," Sally Osberg, president of the Skoll Foundation, told a standing-room-only crowd at this year's lunchtime kickoff to the Stanford Philanthropy Discussion Series. Believing that "individuals effect change but institutions are behind lasting change," the foundation funds mid-to-advanced-stage social entrepreneurs who are in strong positions to transform society.

Jeff Skoll, MBA '95, a co-founder of eBay who started the foundation in 1999, describes himself as part rational engineer, part creative artist, and part driven entrepreneur. This unique synthesis made funding social entrepreneurs a perfect match, and the Skoll Foundation's business became helping people help themselves. Investments range from technology-based businesses in Kenya to microlending institutions in Latin America.

As the Skoll Foundation conducted its own internal assessment of objectives, one of its most important findings, says Osberg, was a rather spectacular misalignment: "What social entrepreneurs need and what foundations do are mismatched." In other words, the foundation realized it needed to go beyond just awarding grants.

"Investing, connecting, and celebrating" social entrepreneurs became the foundation's objective. This drives it to fund cutting-edge outreach and educational initiatives to raise awareness about social entrepreneurship. For example, the Skoll Foundation sponsors Social Edge, an online community that fosters debate, networking, and learning opportunities for social entrepreneurs, activists, and nonprofit professionals.

The foundation also recently helped fund The New Heroes, a documentary on social entrepreneurs around the world. Osberg hopes the program will teach viewers about social entrepreneurs and motivate them to action.

With a current value of $336 million, Osberg said, the Skoll Foundation is still young and growing rapidly. One of the most important choices early on was whether to "spend down" — give away the foundation's worth during Skoll's lifetime — or to create a lasting legacy. In pondering the decision, Skoll asked himself three fundamental questions: How critical is he to the foundation? Is there a problem the foundation could solve now? Is the future full of promise or lost opportunity? Skoll chose to build a foundation with longevity. In his eyes, "people are basically good and can be trusted. The world is growing increasing complex. Providing for the future is an imperative," Osberg said.

Funding uncharted initiatives and forward-thinking projects is not without its challenges. "There's not much that isn't a risk," said Osberg. Even the work that established social entrepreneurs are doing is fragile, she added, with ambitions to grow and develop programs.

Osberg was the first speaker in this year's Philanthropy Discussion Series, which will feature some of the leading thinkers and practitioners in foundation philanthropy. The discussions, sponsored by the Business School's Center for Social Innovation and Stanford University's Haas Center for Public Service, will spotlight foundations' accountability, effectiveness, community responsiveness, and civic mission. William H. Gates, Sr., and Mimi Gardner Gates of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will speak next on February 26. Details about the program and registration information are available at

Upcoming Speakers

February 26, 2004
William H. Gates, Sr., Co-Chair, and Mimi Gardner Gates, Board Member
Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

April 8, 2004
Jim Canales, President and CEO of the James Irvine Foundation

April 19, 2004
Susan Berresford, President of the Ford Foundation

Dates to be determined:

Steve Young, Founder, Forever Young Foundation

James Allen Smith, Senior Advisor, Getty Trust and current holder of Nielsen Chair, Georgetown University

by Sarah Robertson

Related Links

Center for Social Innovation
Stanford Social Innovation Review
Stanford Project on Emerging Nonprofits
Skoll Foundation