What the Skoll Global Threats Fund learnt with its $100 million


Caroline Fiennes


The first president of eBay, Jeff Skoll, set up his Global Threats Fund in 2010 to ‘make progress against five of the gravest threats to humanity’: climate change, pandemics, water security, nuclear proliferation, and conflict in the Middle East. It closes this month having spent its $100 million, and this week published a report about ‘what worked, what didn’t work, and what we learned about philanthropy’s role in reducing global threats’. As more foundations ‘spend out’ and publish their learning, we will probably see more such documents. This one is a weird read.

The Fund describes itself as ‘an ambitious experiment’. However, it’s not entirely obvious what the ‘research question’ was, nor what the answer is. The question appears to have been ‘whether a limited-life organization with $100 million and a band of driven and skilful “threat-ologists” could make progress against’ those five threats. The answer appears to be no: the document doesn’t actually state an answer though, presumably if it was making progress on such important matters, Jeff Skoll would re-fund it to continue.

Certainly on the Middle East, the Fund thought that the answer was no: it closed the Middle East programme after a few years. {Disclosure: that programme was run by Dr Scott Field, a friend of mine (and Alliance magazine’s editor, Charles Keidan).  His account of why it closed differed from that in this report. Worse, if he hadn’t had to leave the Fund, he wouldn’t have been hired by the UN’s Syria operation, wouldn’t have gone to Geneva to await his visa, and wouldn’t have had the accident on Mont Blanc which killed him. Clearly that’s not the Fund’s fault, but it probably does colour my view of it}. The report simply says that the programme ‘was unlikely to have any measurable impact in the near term.’ For such long-standing conflicts, that does seem shatteringly obvious. The report talks elsewhere about needing to expand ‘beyond the dominant, progressive, U.S.-centric perspective’: thus it was curious to base a Middle East programme in San Francisco, whose office hours have zero overlap with those in the region.

For the other four programmes, the report cites a handful of grants and initiatives which went well. Sadly it gives no rationale for the selection of those examples, so we don’t know whether they are highlights, low-lights or a random sample.

Five lessons are drawn from the portfolio as a whole. For instance, that ‘networks and communities of practice [are] a promising path to impact across all the threats’. And that it was valuable to ‘play other keys on the keyboard’ alongside grant-making, such as convening donors, creating convenings, and leading work itself. These lessons can usefully be heard and heeded by other donors too.

Overall, this report leaves me with three reactions: First, good for them for publishing this. They didn’t have to. They admit some failings and mistakes, which is a generous gift to the wider field. This is better than the average foundation’s reports –of smiling beneficiaries, accounts of happy grantees and some number of £ or $ dished out. This report goes way beyond that.

Second, I’d like more data. There could have been data about grantee and stakeholder perceptions of the Fund. (The money did come originally from eBay, after all, where feedback abounds.) There could have been data on the proportion of grants and initiatives which succeeded versus those that didn’t succeed, and some analysis of the factors that seem to predict success. Giving Evidence has suggested both of these as basic analyses of foundation performance. The report is only eighteen pages, which seems rather light for $100 million.

Third, and mainly, the report seems to say that the Fund’s remit was impossible. It was to make progress which was both measurable, and evident in the ‘near-term’. Perhaps with global threats such as these, real progress just isn’t always measureable, and doesn’t happen fast. For instance, the negotiations to end the FARC conflict in Colombia took four years. What was there to show for them before they finally got to a solution? Probably nothing much. Similarly the process which led to the Oslo peace accords between Israel and the PLO took many years. The history of philanthropy is full of important achievements which weren’t measureable and weren’t evident in the ‘near-term’.

The report says that learning to ‘play all the keys on the keyboard’ required the Fund to ‘build new capabilities’ especially as it had – sensibly – hired subject-experts, rather than philanthropy experts. This obviously takes time. Similarly, building the necessary networks took time. The Fund admits to false-starts with its governance process, and to having the wrong strategy initially (trying to find solutions common to all the threats before settling on tackling them individually). All new organisations take a while to find their feet.

It seems that the eight or so years which the Fund was given was simply not enough to learn to do what it needed to do. Or rather, if released from the strictures of measurability and ‘near-term’, perhaps it would have made a giant contribution. After all, Jeff Skoll’s motivation for the setting up the Fund made the point clearly. ‘If we don’t get ahead of {these issues} soon, all of the other things we’re trying to do…won’t really matter’.

Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *