Sally Osberg, Skoll Foundation

TITLE: President and CEO

FUNDING AREAS: Environment, natural resources (water and forests), and global peace and justice issues

CONTACT: sosberg@skollfoundation.org, 650-331-1031

IP TAKE: Osberg oversees millions of dollars in grants annually to organizations effecting environmental and social change around the globeso-called social entrepreneurs.

PROFILE: Sally Osberg, president and CEO of the Skoll Foundation, is big on social entrepreneurship; it's the whole basis of her giving philosophy, actually. To Osberg, social entrepreneurs are such important agents of change that their inability to leverage (that is, finance) their talents results in "outright harm, with that burden falling most heavily on poor and marginalized populations." Osberg continues: "Think of the millions who die miserable deaths from contaminated water in developing world countries, the victims of non-existent or dysfunctional sanitation systems." Grim stuff, this. But social entrepreneurship, Osberg believes, can be a key component in solving the world's water problems.

It's not enough for Osberg to distribute water bottles or bore wells in vulnerable areas, though. She doesn't fund social service providers. What Osberg wants are projects that transform entire water distribution systemsthings with a lasting impact. Osberg funds social entrepreneurs because she believes they're capable of creating long-term societal change but often lack the cash flow to transform their dreams into reality.

The Skoll Foundation funds projects in a range of areas, most of them environmental or social justice-centric: deforestation, education, international development, health care, food security and agriculture, peace, environmentally friendly manufacturing practices, and water. The foundation's chairman and founder, Jeff Skoll, is an Internet entrepreneur (creator of eBay) and moderately subversive film producer (think Food, Inc., An Inconvenient Truth), so he has a familiar relationship with entrepreneurship and the use of unconventional ideas as a means to alter mainstream consciousness. Skoll's foundation is devoted to financing others who have a Skoll-esque can-do spirit, ones whose realized visions could effectively solve "some of the world's most pressing problems."

Like the foundation chairman, Osberg is an accomplished innovator with multiple talents and an eye toward doing good. A major project of hers: founding and directing the Children's Discovery Museum of San Jose. Previously, Osberg directed the boards of the American Museum Association, the American Leadership Forum, and  Women and Philanthropy. Osberg has also been an editor, a literature student (with an master's degree from Claremont Graduate School), a college professor (of writing), and an adviser to the Elders, a group of veteran world leaders collaborating to create peace. Among the Elders: such luminaries as Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan, and Jimmy Carter.

The Skoll Foundation is cautious about taking on too many new organizational partners. As a rule, the foundation funds a maximum of 10 projects a year. A look at the number of grants (several dozen, which is definitely higher than 10) that the foundation makes in a year, however, would suggest that Skoll grants are often multiyear endeavors. The foundation typically awards its grantees more than $17.9 million annually. 

It should be noted that more than 10 of those $17.9 million go to another Skoll organization called the Skoll Global Threats Fund, which seeks to guard humanity against, as the name of the fund suggests, global threats. Well, five of them, to be precise: climate change, water security, pandemics, nuclear proliferation, and Middle East conflict. The Skoll Foundation's remaining grants go to a range of charitable organizations around the world focusing on its primary program areas. A full list of recent grants is available, in some detail, in Skoll's tax form 990.

Full details on the Skoll Foundation's grant application process are available here. But a general theme in what Skoll wants to fund social entrepreneurs rearranging the world order for good.

Final notes on Sally Osberg: she talks about saving the world on Twitter (see below); she blogs about social entrepreneurship for the Huffington Post; and she really believes in what she's doing. Osberg's conviction comes through clearly in an interview in Forbes (conducted with, somewhat oddly, one of her employees):

I'd have to say our north star is an unwavering belief that big problems can be solved, even our most daunting threats defeated. For me the choice is stark: you can curse the darkness or chart a better future. Together with fellow travelers the world over, the Skoll Foundation is giving that brighter future our best shot.


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