Jeff Skoll: Financing the social
May 28, 2009
Jeff Skoll made hundreds of millions of dollars in stock from the IPO of eBay. He paid off his student debts for his Stanford MBA and became a philanthropist and social entrepreneur. In his own words, there are ‘important things he wants to do in the world’ so he uses his wealth to “support good people doing good things”. (His belief in the goodness of people seems to have been bolstered by the observation that from the outset only three in a million transactions went wrong on eBay.) A middle class Canadian, he’s “delighted to be able to do this”. Why? Because, in a lesson learned from his father, ‘he wants to do the things he wants to do in his life’, and he wants to ‘make a difference’.
Skoll draws a distinction between philanthropy (giving away money) and social entrepreneurship: “Social entrepreneurs are really society’s change agents. They find the holds in the system that aren’t being fixed by corporate or government organizations or religious or traditional non-profit institutions. They’re the ones that say, ‘wait a minute – there’s something here, girl’s education in Africa is completely lacking’”. The list of big issues affecting the fate of humanity that he’s interested in include nuclear change, middle east peace, climate change, pandemics, and poverty alleviation.
Social entrepreneurs intervene and they use market innovations in their work. Skoll’s commercial global media film company focused on the public interest is behind the financing of films that may not have other wise been financed such as ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, ‘Charlie Wilson’s War’, and the ‘Kite Runner’. The purpose of the company is to educate the public so they can change their views. In at least one case, however, the effect was ostensibly more profound. ‘North Country’ starring Charlize Theron was timed to be released with the Bush administration’s vote to renew the Violence Against Women Act. The film was not did not do well at box offices but legislators who saw it reported that it influenced their vote. So from a ‘social standpoint’ Skoll counts this film as a success.
The social entrepreneur is a soft power political figure. They are the result of the super-concentration of financial capital in the hands of a few, who are elevated into the privileged position of financing initiatives that support their own preferred agendas. If this strikes you as an ungenerous statement then consider for a moment that Skoll was supporting a bunch of issues you just don’t agree with (which maybe he is). There is, then, something discomforting about the rise of social entrepreneurship. Because at the end of the day the best signal of democratic sociality is, perhaps, not the content of any particular politics, but rather, a widespread accessibility to the methods by which political resolutions can be pursued.
Jeff Skoll was interviewed on The Interview with Owen Bennett Jones of the BBC.