2013-09-23

Jeff Skoll On How He Uses The Power Of Storytelling To Push For Change

For his whole philanthropic career, the eBay co-founder has harnessed compelling narrative to help inform and inspire a better future.

Jeff Skoll, the first full-time employee and former president of eBay, believes in a good story. Through the power of storytelling and community, Skoll hopes to inspire people to help solve the world’s problems as well as provide opportunities for individuals to make a difference.

"If you can find ways to give people hope that they can achieve something or make a difference, then there’s an opportunity for something good to happen," Skoll says.

Growing up in a middle class family in Montreal, Canada, Skoll never thought much about philanthropy. His family spent summers in upstate New York camping, where each week he loaded a box with books at the local library to entertain himself. He was struck then "that the world was heading into some pretty perilous times where there would be a huge explosion in population, big demand on resources, terrible new weapons, potential terrible new wars and plagues."

Skoll envisioned his future as a writer crafting stories that would get people interested in and engaged in these issues that were shaping us all. He quickly surmised that writing was not the best way for him to make a living and therefore have an impact.

"I wanted to find a way to be financially independent enough so that I could tell these stories and get people involved and so I became an entrepreneur," Skoll says.

When eBay went public in 1998, Skoll went from living off credit cards in a house with five guys to having more resources than he could have ever dreamed of. After eBay, Skoll thought he would at last fulfill his childhood dream of becoming a writer.

"And then a light bulb went off that I didn’t actually have to write these stories," Skoll says. "I could find writers to write these stories and better still, we could turn them into movies and TV and other forms of media and reach people in a massive way."

Skoll formed Participant Media to tackle social issues, help people better understand the issues, and give the audience opportunities to get involved through relevant social action campaigns. Participant Media has underwritten over 40 thought-provoking films including An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for Superman, The Cove, and Lincoln. These films tell stories not only to entertain but also to spur action.

Waiting for Superman was accompanied by a three-year campaign to reform public education in America. The goals of the ongoing movement are to (1) insure 30 states adopt common test standards, (2) decrease the drop-out rate by 10% over three years and (3) develop better teaching methodologies. The follow-up film, Teach, debuted this month.

The launch of Pivot, a new channel with the mission to entertain and inspire activism, reflects Skoll’s dream to drive change 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Viewers will have the opportunity to support organizations directly after a show. The channel is aimed at the millennial generation, which he believes are the most amenable to taking action for a cause.

"We call them the next greatest generation," Skoll says. "This generation is heading headlong into all these massive problems that they’ve inherited and they’re savvy, they’re aware, and they know they can make a difference and it’s cool to do that."

Skoll first turned his attention towards philanthropy as eBay was going public. Pierre Omidyar, the founder and chairman, and Skoll connected over the shared power of community and the power of individuals to make a difference. They believed it was essential to share their success with the community. The result was the eBay Foundation, the first corporate foundation to be endowed with pre-IPO stock.

Skoll’s first solo philanthropic venture was the Skoll Foundation, which focuses on investing and celebrating those working to address the most pressing problems. Having seen social entrepreneurship on the rise and in need of a different model of support, the foundation has been at the forefront of supporting this hybrid business.

"These are people who need unrestricted funding," Skoll says. "They need the understanding as entrepreneurs that they can change directions and find the highest leverage that they possibly can and it may be different than how they started out. They also need long-term support."

After establishing an academic home for social entrepreneurship at Oxford University’s new business school, the Skoll Foundation hosted its first conference in 2003.

"It turned into a little bit of a mini-Woodstock where you had all these incredible people who were out doing amazing work that had previously thought they were alone and didn’t realize there were like-minded folks working maybe not on the same issues but in similar ways," Skoll says.

Today the Skoll World Forum has grown to an annual four-day event for 1,000 attendees. "It’s really considered the crown jewel of the social entrepreneurship sector," Skoll says. Having reached maximum capacity at Oxford, the Skoll Foundation is currently investigating possibilities for expanding the conference.

At the heart of Skoll’s motivation is a desire to bring hope to others. While backpacking around the world after college, Skoll visited Pakistan and saw so many people living in desperation without hope. "It struck me that if we couldn’t help places like Pakistan," Skoll says, "then the whole world would eventually be consumed by that kind of desperation."

It awakened in him a desire to be generous and to help those less fortunate have at least hope for a better future.

"It’s in my own interest—it’s in everybody’s interest—to have streets that are safe, children that are educated, and drug use that’s diminished, crimes that are not affecting us," Skoll says. "If we turn a blind eye, then all these things will eventually impact us, which I guess I’ve extended as my organizations have grown to the biggest problems in the world like nuclear weapons and climate change and forestation. These are things that largely are happening in far-flung places of the world but they eventually come back to bite us."

Skoll’s for-profit and philanthropic ventures share an element of trust in the power of the individual and the goodness of people. Perhaps owing to a childhood of hearing "Be Nice" public service campaigns in Canada, Skoll believes that people, if given the opportunity, will engage in these pressing issues.

"If you believe that people are basically good and you remove obstacles, then they’ll do the right thing by each other," Skoll says.

[Image: Abstract via Shutterstock]

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