Jeff Skoll’s name is right at the top of the list of most impressive philanthropists of our time, nestled in between Bill Gates and Carlos Slim Helu. Forbes estimates that his total donations to be $1.2 billion, but that’s no serious achievement—not for Skoll, anyway.
He’s managed to do what thousands have failed to do before him: affect meaningful change in a world that has been struggling to do so for centuries.
Skoll has always been a magnet for profits. He was eBay’s first permanent employee, and he’s thought of as the catalyst for a huge chunk of the e-commerce site’s success: one worth $2 billion, to be precise. Jeff had far more important issues in his sights than profits, though: The planet wasn’t happy enough for him, and when Jeff wants something, he gets it. He went on to disrupt the very concept of social entrepreneurship, going as far as Hollywood to get his message out via the silver screen.
Some might say Jeff’s success was achieved by identifying powerful individuals and betting on them instead of focusing on the problems themselves, but that would only be half the answer.
ONE: Stories and Spielberg
Storytelling has a unique power to inspire, so Skoll started the Hollywood for-profit film company, Participant Media, which is responsible for many of Hollywood’s most successful films. Contagion, The Help, and An Inconvenient Truth are just a few of the many movies the studio has produced. Each film acted as a backdrop for philanthropic projects. This has become such a core part of the studio that it now insists on social action with every movie it puts out.
Why tell a story through TedTalks when you can tell it through Oscar-winning movies? Jeff Skoll thinks big, so by its second year, Participant Media had already won 22 Academy Award nominations. The Kite Runner, Food, Inc, and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln followed. His success brought a revolution to the social entrepreneurial landscape, proving that changemakers needn’t use the cheapest tools at their disposal. Large action requires a large investment.
“The world is a vast and complicated place and it needs each of us doing all we can to ensure a brighter tomorrow for future generations. Conrad Hilton said it is the duty of successful people to give back to the society from which their success was derived….I feel lucky to have been able to pursue my dreams and I hope that my contributions will in some small way lead to a sustainable world of peace and prosperity.” – Jeff Skoll, Giving Pledge
THREE: Entrepreneurship through Entrepreneurs
Any social entrepreneur worth his salt knows that change is created by teaching the needy how to fish instead of giving them fish. Jeff is different, though. Through the Skoll Foundation, he has taught teachers how to teach teachers, a strategy that has multiplied his footprint massively.
Skoll has inspired changemakers working towards five causes: Peace in the Middle East, nuclear weapons, pandemics, water, and climate change. No social entrepreneur could hope to target that many causes, let alone ones as gargantuan as those, so by investing directly in those who could make a difference, Skoll has literally changed the world.
FOUR: The Long Game: Profits or Bust
Your average changemaker plays a short game. Funds are instantly put to use, fostering a culture of poverty within the organization. Skoll wanted to achieve more, so he spent his first years with The Skoll Foundation discovering the best ways to boost his own philanthropy. It took some trial and error for him to start refining the concept of social entrepreneurship through a longer game.
By investing in for-profit businesses and social entrepreneurs simultaneously, he could feed funds into large-scale projects managed by other changemakers. This is at the heart of Jeff’s success, and he achieved it by inspiring others in precisely the same way as he did via his film studio.
FIVE: Change Through Innovation
Every cause has unique needs at ground zero. Access to sanitation, for example, is a massive problem that causes not only disease, but crime as well. Local changemakers have been lobbying for years to resolve this problem without success, but they’ve been using traditional plumbing. The Skoll Foundation aims to achieve universal access to sanitation by 2030, and to succeed where others have failed, it’s working with CEOs who can develop more ground-breaking solutions. Ambitious goals require innovative solutions, so the foundation is investing in the creation of pioneering technology.
Jeff Skoll has been fixing massive catastrophes before they hit headline news ever since the term ‘social entrepreneurship’ was coined. One element has popped up at every phase of his journey: Inspiration is behind every thriving enterprise he’s touched.
Vincent van Gogh said, “I dream my painting and I paint my dream.”
Skoll has followed precisely that ideal, painting the world in a million shades of inspiration while he achieves his dreams.