Perhaps not since Joanne Herring, the wealthy Texan political activist and philanthropist – played by Julia Roberts in the film 'Charlie Wilson's War' – has anyone seemed to have more fun giving away money and trying to change the world than Jeff Skoll.
The film was produced by Skoll's Participant Media, which has been involved in over 75 productions that together have received 52 Academy Award nominations and won 11, including Best Picture last year for 'Spotlight'. They have won dozens of national and international prizes for feature films and documentaries.
Last week, the Carnegie Corporation of New York honored Skoll at a Great Immigrants tribute marking U.S. Independence Day. The recognition celebrates "the richness of talent, skills, and achievements that immigrants from around the world bring to every sphere of American society."
The tribute follows Skoll's receiving the 2017 Medal of Philanthropy last month from the Carnegie group of more than a dozen institutions funded by the fortune of 19th century industrialist Andrew Carnegie and bearing his name. Announcing the nine awardees, Carnegie Corporation President Vartan Gregorian said the organizations operating under Skoll's umbrella "are designed to challenge some of the greatest threats to mankind and the environment today".
Before making movies, the Canadian technology entrepreneur, who has a degree in electrical engineering and a graduate business degree from Stanford University, wrote the business plan for the pioneering online marketplace eBay. He was its president, led its initial public offering and launched the eBay Foundation with the company's founder Pierre Omidyar. The two men share an interest in media – Omidyar founded First Look Media and was a producer, alongside Jeff Skoll's Participant Media, in the 2015 film 'Spotlight', which took the Oscar for Best Film.
With money made from his stake in eBay, Skoll launched the Skoll Foundation in 1999. Also associated with Skoll are the Skoll Global Threats Fund, the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship, and the Capricorn Investment Group.
The foundation aims to help social entrepreneurs "solve the world's most pressing social problems". The forum connects social entrepreneurs with networks of thinkers, artists and innovators. The fund focuses on averting such global threats as climate change, pandemics and nuclear proliferation. The investment group hopes to show that values-based investments in sustainability can "enhance return rates'.
Many philanthropists come across as more earnest than interesting, especially if their causes are deep social problems. If his purposes suggest that Jeff Skoll is one of those people, think again. He may not be among the best-known billionaires, but he may be the one you'd most like to spend a day with.
At this year's Skoll World Forum, held annually at the Said Business School of Oxford University, the packed, four-day program was a tribute to musicians, artists, scholars, leaders of do-good organizations – both businesses and not-for profits, and potential investors and funders. Scheduling of simultaneous sessions forced difficult choices of what to attend. Nevertheless, there was encouragement of active participation during panels and round-tables, as well as built-in time for conversation during breaks and over meals.
Crises were the agenda, but the emphasis was on solutions. A session led Dr. Larry Brilliant, head of the Global Threats Fund and former chief of Google.org, considered how to respond more scientifically and effectively to the next, inevitable pandemic than the worldwide panic over Ebola. A track on 'The Future of News', coordinated by former President and CEO of the U.S. Public Broadcasting Corporation Pat Mitchell, featured panels of journalists exploring how media organizations can survive the challenges to traditional business models. At the launch of the track, Stephen King of the Omidyar Network announced a $100 million fund to support factual, investigative journalism, including a $4.5 million grant to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
At Capricorn-hosted pitches from big-vision entrepreneurs, investors heard a range of presentations from realizing the dream of nuclear fusion for clean energy to averting world water scarcity. Ford Foundation President Darren Walker announced the commitment of up to a billion dollars from its endowment towards 'mission-related investments' to increase the impact of its grants. Oxfam International President Winnie Byanyima, a Ugandan activist with degrees in aeronautical and mechanical engineering, discussed the complex decision to move the headquarters to Kenya from London. [Byanyima tweeted on June 27 that a 'host country agreement' to enable the move was reached with the Kenyan government.]
Defying the dismal prospects for easy solutions, the mood of the forum was celebratory and optimistic. A highlight was the award ceremony presenting $1.25 million each to four social entrepreneurs, two from Africa.
Kola Masha of Babban Gona in Nigeria leads a company providing services and market access to small farmers in a country where food self-sufficiency has been declining, along with nutrition levels. Seventy percent of children between the ages of six months and two years lack "a minimum acceptable diet", according to the Nigerian health ministry. Poor nutrition in the first 1000 days of life leaves children 'stunted' – unable to reach their intellectual potential and subject to lifelong poor health. But Nigeria was once a food exporter and has the potential to feed itself again, a goal Babban Gona aims to help realize.
Dr. Rajesh Panjabi founded Last Mile Health in Liberia, extending health-care access to people in the most rural, hard-to-reach areas. Before Ebola struck in 2014, Liberia under President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf had steadily built a network of local clinics. Despite the ravages of a quarter century of conflict, Liberia became the first sub-Saharan African country to meet the UN Millennium Development Goal for reducing mortality for children under five by two-thirds – partly by reducing infant mortality but also by doubling immunization rates. A study published by the British medical journal The Lancet suggests that Ebola – with a large percentage of health-worker deaths and dramatic cuts in flights and ships delivering medical supplies and protective clothing – pushed the country back to pre-1995 levels of maternal deaths. Last Mile Health is implementing a plan to address those issues that it hopes can be extended to other countries with fragile health systems. Fifteen days after accepting the Skoll award, Panjabi was awarded this year's million dollar TED prize.
A former awardee, Vivek Maru of Namati, providing information and services to more than four billion people globally who "live outside the protection of the law", said the exhilaration of winning the prize followed an intensive investigation by the Skoll team, which probes every aspect of the work of those under consideration. "Skoll wants to make the most difference," he said. Other recent winners said their organizations had benefitted in unexpected ways from networking and advice that, while non-intrusive, can be as useful as the much-needed funds.
Jeff Skoll, who makes it all possible, is seldom visible on stage and rarely interviewed. When he is, he is unassuming, deferential and complimentary to others. His staff say those qualities are his real-life character, which is inspirational and empowering. Announcing that Skoll Foundation President Sally Osburg will leave that role to become a special advisor to him and to the Skoll Group, Skoll said he was relatively new to philanthropy when he conceived the foundation. "Having Sally by my side," he said, "with wisdom that transcended our work together, has been a joy and a privilege."
The music is the message – bagpipes and travel bans
Threaded throughout forum deliberations was music – and a refreshing inclusion of Africans in the mix. Remember the 2005 'Live 8' concerts to call attention to Africa prior to a G8 meeting? There was a ticket frenzy in multiple countries, worldwide broadcast to as many as a billion people, and top stars – but no Africans were originally scheduled except Youssou N'Dour, prompting the Senegalese musician to partner with Peter Gabriel on a separate Live 8 concert, Africa Calling, featuring African stars.
In contrast, at the opening Skoll plenary, Sierra Leone's 'Refugee All Stars' set the tone, getting delegates moving with a combination of social message, emotion and musical virtuosity. Members of the 'Silk Road Ensemble' , founded by Yo-Yo Ma, continued the multi-ethnic, multi-national theme.
Who knew, until Christina Pato of Spain played her bagpipes, that the instrument is traditional in the Galacia area? The just-in-time arrival of Silk Road clarinetist Kinan Asmeh, from Syria, due to visa delay was a reminder of continuing border and migration issues. Two months earlier, the U.S. travel ban had stranded the U.S. resident of 16 years in Lebanon, where he had flown for a concert. By the time Michael Franti – whose personal story of sorrow and resilience provoked tears – had summoned Jeff Skoll, his teen-age favorite rocker, Eagles founder Don Henley, and Bono on stage to sing My Lord with him, the crowd was dancing at their seats.
First tell good stories – then hope
Uniting all Skoll's work is storytelling. Entrepreneurs tell their stories. Musicians tell theirs. Investors tell theirs. Skoll acquired digital entertainment company SoulPancake to reach new audiences and its videos have had hundreds of millions of views. Not all Skoll media investments succeed, of course. TakePart, designed as a social action platform, never gained the traction it needed.
Skoll, say associates, is willing to make big bets and take big risks – to match the scale of global challenges. In Ottawa in 2012, when he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada, Skoll was asked by the Globe & Mail why he's already given away half his fortune and expects to contribute or invest most of the rest. "There's really only so much that you need, or your family needs," he said. "All else is to be turned, hopefully smartly, into a benefit for the world."
Skoll's money managers are reported to have discouraged what they saw as a quixotic desire to make Hollywood movies, including a former politician standing on a stage with a slide show about climate change. But Participant Media's productions are reaching a mass global audience and making profits. The movies might pack a message, but they are gripping or funny rather than plodding, and they attract well-known actors, writers, partners and personalities: Tom Hanks, George Clooney, Viola Davis, Sean Penn, Charlize Theron, Aaron Sorkin, Ethan and Joel Cohen, Steven Spielberg and Al Gore among them.
And the films keep coming: 'An Inconvenient Sequel', ten years after 'An Inconvenient Truth', 'Human Flow', an Ai Weiwei picture about the global refugee crisis, to debut later this year alongside a public education campaign, and 'Wonder', starring Julia Roberts, due to be released in November.
The Wonder trailer has already had millions of views, and it's hard to imagine many people watch it without tears, although – because it's a Participant movie – there's also hope. That's the essence of Jeff Skoll, says Stanford Magazine about its high-achieving alumnus – "inexhaustible hopefulness. It's a wellspring of tenacity that's rooted, says friend and ally Sally Osberg, in an unyielding "belief in the power of human beings to create the communities and the world they want."
We can all hope for that.
Watch the Skoll World Forum 2017 highlights reel.
Tami Hultman spoke on a panel to launch the 'Future of News' track at the Skoll World Forum 2017. She says the closing concert on her birthday was the best party ever.