Jeff Skoll Makes a New Kind of Bet on Storytelling With a Gift to UCLA


Alliance magazine


This article originally appeared on Inside Philanthropy, on 19 November 2014. The original article can be found here>

Tech entrepreneurs often have a unique way of approaching problems, which can lead to unconventional solutions and shifts in thinking. We’ve seen them embrace philanthrocapitalism, social entrepreneurship, and crowdfunding as ways to increase their impact.

What we haven’t seen are many techies doing what Jeff Skoll has done, which is to embrace media and entertainment as a key to social change. Eric Schmidt and his wife Wendy have prioritized media, as we wrote recently, but not a lot of other examples spring to mind—and certainly no one who has jumped into this area the way that Skoll has.

As the first employee and eventually president of eBay, Skoll transformed the online marketplace. After eBay’s IPO made him a billionaire, though, Skoll did not opt to stay on at a handsome salary or use his newfound wealth to invest in new tech startups, as many techies who make it big do. Instead, Skoll founded a media and production company called Participant Media, as well as a charitable foundation.

The story of Skoll’s journey into movies is now well known, but bear with me here, because there’s a new twist.

Using what he’d learned building eBay, Skoll’s idea was to fund feature films and documentaries that promote social values while still being commercially viable, and support complementary organizations through his foundation. While the impact of some of Participant Media’s films, like Syriana, or Good Night and Good Luckcan be hard to measure, they were certainly box office successes, and helped enable the production of documentaries like An Inconvenient TruthFast Food Nation, and The Cove.

Now the new twist: Skoll is institutionalizing the link between his media work and his philanthropy with a $10 million donation to the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television to create the Skoll Center for Social Impact Entertainment.

“I founded Participant Media in the belief that a story well told has the power to ignite positive social change,” Skoll said. This new center at UCLA TFT is an extension of that vision, with the goal of empowering a new generation and elevating storytelling as a tool to create impact and empower people to connect to the social issues which can have a profound impact on our world.

In addition to studying the influence of social impact storytelling and developing measurement tools, Skoll hopes the center will bring together foundations, social entrepreneurs, nonprofits, philanthropists, corporations, and the creative community, serving as a resource to create new ways to connect and tell stories.

It’s commonly said that if you want to connect to people or influence their behavior, tell them a powerful story. But many philanthropists give short shrift to this elementary approach as they seek to achieve social change, instead bankrolling endless research studies and antiseptic policy interventions.

To be sure, we see some funders focus on storytelling, like the Compton Foundation in its climate change work, and we see a growing appreciation of storytelling in some funding niches here and there, like museums.

But what Skoll is doing strikes us unique, and we’ll be interested to see how it goes, and if it leads to bigger gifts in the same vein.

Remember, for all the giving he’s done so far, Jeff Skoll is actually richer now than he was a few years ago, with a fortune estimated at $3.9 billion. If he decides he wants to bankroll storytelling efforts at a much higher level, he’s got the resources.

Michael Gentilucci

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