The Skoll Foundation broadens its strategy beyond social entrepreneurs

VisionSpring reaches people in rural and peri-urban areas through outreach efforts that provide vision screenings and access to affordable glasses. Photo by: Vision Spring / DIVatUSAID / CC BY-NC-ND

The Skoll Foundation, a private foundation best known for supporting social entrepreneurs through its annual Skoll Awards for Social Entrepreneurship, is evolving its strategy by supporting a wider range of actors across sectors needed to drive social change. 

CEO Don Gips spoke with Devex about the shift ahead of the release of his annual letter on Tuesday. The letter explains that the foundation is broadening its investment approach to five interconnected challenges: strengthening health systems and preventing pandemics; mobilizing climate action; reimagining inclusive and sustainable economies; promoting effective governance; and advancing racial justice.

The COVID-19 pandemic and last year’s Black Lives Matter protests accelerated some of the changes already underway at the foundation, he said.

“The multitude of challenges over the last year put our evolved strategy to the test and helped focus our strategic priorities and sharpen our hypotheses of how best to support the social entrepreneurs and other social innovators who transform our world,” Gips wrote in the letter.

The Skoll Foundation, founded in 1999 by Jeff Skoll, the first president of eBay, has long sought ways to support its social entrepreneurs beyond the Skoll Award — an investment of $1.5 million in four to six organizations annually.

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The Palo Alto, California-based organization began to refine its strategy in 2019, working on a “proximate grantmaking strategy” supporting individuals and organizations “who have more lived and learned experience and are closer to the problems,” Gips told Devex.

The foundation kept hearing the same message — with an increasing sense of urgency — from its network of social entrepreneurs, Gips said.

“We can’t keep all running our own race,” he said. “We have to figure out how to make this a relay race and work together across these issues.”

So the foundation started to examine how to support social entrepreneurs who were “trying to think across the system and work collaboratively,” Gips said. 

An example is Jordan Kassalow, who won the Skoll Award in 2009 for his work on VisionSpring, an organization focused on expanding access to affordable eyeglasses. He went on to launch EYElliance, a coalition that identifies proven models to increase access to eyeglasses in less developed countries, then works to integrate them into public and private systems.

“The multitude of challenges over the last year put our evolved strategy to the test and helped focus our strategic priorities and sharpen our hypotheses of how best to support the social entrepreneurs and other social innovators who transform our world.”

— Don Gips, CEO, Skoll Foundation

The Skoll Foundation’s evolved strategy will allow it to work more closely with intermediary organizations, or “proximate grantmakers,” to identify emerging social innovations around the world, and “connect them with decision-making frameworks,” so they can be scaled and adopted more quickly, Gips said.

Some of the lessons that shaped the Skoll Foundation’s new strategy emerged from the Skoll Global Threats Fund, a private foundation that focused on climate change, pandemics, water security, nuclear proliferation, and conflict in the Middle East. It closed at the end of 2017 and spun off its work on climate and pandemics into standalone initiatives while incorporating other work into Skoll Foundation.

The Skoll Foundation learned from “the approach of Skoll Global Threats, of understanding a focus area and being able to find actors who quite often were systems orchestrators, could see across that whole system, and figure out what were the levers that allowed you to work with the private sector, the public sector, and civil society, to drive change you needed to move that whole ecosystem,” Gips said.

Over the past year, the Skoll Foundation has expanded the scope of its grantmaking as part of its COVID-19 response — for example, by supporting the Africa Donor Collaborative coordinated by the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

Gips has worked closely with the Jeff Skoll Group, a family of organizations including the Skoll Foundation, Capricorn Investment Group, and Participant Media, to evolve the Skoll Foundation's strategy. Moving forward, he said, he will also work closely with Marla Blow, who the Skoll Foundation recruited from the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth to become their new president and chief operating officer.

One of Gips’s key questions is how to evaluate the impact of the foundation’s evolved strategy.

“We’re really trying to lean into shifting power to those who we fund,” he said. “We need some measure to know are we doing the right things.”

Gips is also trying to figure out how to increase the adoption of social innovation in government.

“It’s pretty clear the current policy agendas we have aren’t sufficient to answer the challenges the planet faces,” said Gips, who worked in a range of government roles, including serving as U.S. ambassador to South Africa, prior to joining the Skoll Foundation.

Skoll and other foundations can provide risk capital to support these new ideas.

“But it’s not good enough if we then can’t figure out the next step to adoption,” he said. “That will be the big journey we’re on in the next year.”

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Catherine also works for the Solutions Journalism Network, a non profit that trains and connects reporters to cover responses to problems.