03/22/2011 01:02 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

An In-depth Interview With Sally Osberg, President And CEO Of The Skoll Foundation

In advance of the 2011 Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship, I conducted an in-depth interview with Sally Osberg, president and CEO of the Skoll Foundation, on the evolution of the organization and their efforts, the intersection between social entrepreneurship and international development, future challenges and opportunities facing the sector, and much more.

Rahim Kanani: Since becoming CEO of the Skoll Foundation in 2001, reflect on the last decade how the foundation has evolved in terms of approach, reach, and resources.

Sally Osberg: When talking about the Skoll Foundation's evolution, I like to start by quoting Waldemar Nielsen, who reminds us that "A foundation starts with a person, the donor. That human being, by his or her major charitable act, is the fountainhead from which all else ... flows."

For us, that fountainhead is Jeff Skoll, who realized, even as a kid, that the world faced big challenges that were going to affect his future, and that it would be up to him to make a positive difference.

When eBay, the Internet company he helped build as Pierre Omidyar's partner, went public, Jeff knew it was time to get going on the promise he'd made as a young man. So in 1999, he created the Skoll Foundation, endowing it with financial resources and, more importantly, with his vision for a sustainable world of peace and prosperity.

That vision is our beacon -- it doesn't change. And while our strategy has evolved a bit over the years, it has always been rooted in the idea of investing in people with exciting visions, proven track records, and credible plans for making big dents on big issues.

In the Foundation's earliest years, we hadn't yet come across the term 'social entrepreneurs' to describe the innovators we'd begun to seek out and back -- but social entrepreneurs they were! One of our earliest investments, for example, was in Bill Strickland's vision for expanding his renowned Pittsburgh-based Manchester Bidwell arts, education and training program, so that many more thousands of kids and young adults all over the U.S. would have a shot at a better future. Today, five replication sites are operating throughout the country, with several more in the pipeline.

Other social entrepreneurs in whom we invested at this stage, including Martin Fisher and Nick Moon of Approtech (now KickStart International), Jim Fruchterman of Benetech, and John Wood of Room to Read, have gone from strength to strength in building social ventures benefiting millions all over the world. Jim Fruchterman was even awarded a MacArthur "genius" prize.

The next stage in our evolution was to understand the landscape of social entrepreneurship and where we could add value. With consulting help, we carried out a market research process to hone our strategy.

What we discovered was that there were a few organizations focused on early stage social entrepreneurs, but no one who was investing in social entrepreneurs at the mezzanine stage, where the entrepreneurs' models had been sufficiently proven and poised to scale their impact significantly.

We also learned that social entrepreneurs needed more than funding, that they needed the things all entrepreneurs need, especially long-term partners, investors who'd provide them with the flexibility to learn and adapt, with connections, and with greater visibility.

And that's the input that led to our "invest, connect and celebrate strategy," which spurred us to create the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship and Social Edge, which serve as platforms for connecting social entrepreneurs -- and to build partnerships with leading media and academic organizations able to raise the profiles of social entrepreneurs.

Among the partners with whom we work most closely to do this, are Sundance, PBS, and the Said Business School at Oxford University, where we created the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship.

Along the way, we also adopted an issues framework, which we affectionately dubbed "THE PIE," an acronym for Tolerance and Human Rights, Health, Economic and Social Equity, Peace and Security, and Environmental Sustainability.

While most social entrepreneurs design innovations that cut across two or more issues, we found this framework helped underscore that we were looking for game-changing innovations in issues of global significance.

As we approached our 10th anniversary in 2009, facing the realities of massive global challenges, many of which were being exacerbated by climate change and new geopolitical forces, we decided it was time to take stock of what we'd learned and consult with experts on the world's big problems.

In the end, we affirmed our core commitment to social entrepreneurs, but made two significant adjustments to our strategy: adding to our mix the option to invest in "other innovators" beyond social entrepreneurs per se, in recognition that no single venture on its own produces large scale change; and sharpening our focus on those social entrepreneurs driving solutions to humanity's most pressing problems.

Today, just over a decade into this work, we've upped the ante on our own accountability by defining our targets more sharply and focusing where we see real potential to drive large-scale results. Decreasing the rate of deforestation in the Amazon, for example, is more specific than the meta-level goal of environmental sustainability, requiring that we integrate and aim what we have to offer -- our grant funding and other forms of capital, our media knowledge and relationships, our knowledge and networks -- on the highest potential opportunities to arrest the destruction of one of the world's most vital ecosystems.

It's also important to emphasize that much of what we do hasn't changed: we continue to bring a small number of social entrepreneurs into our portfolio each year, we continue to provide them with core operating support over a three-year period, and we continue to support the entire portfolio and a global community of leading social entrepreneurs in their learning and connecting through the Skoll World Forum and on-line platforms.

Rahim Kanani: What do you now know about social entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurs that you didn't know when you started in 2001?

Sally Osberg: In 2001, we had a sense that the idea of a social entrepreneur -- with their innovations as catalytic in solving critical social and environmental problems -- was really going to resonate.

Those were the golden years of Silicon Valley, when entrepreneurship was in the zeitgeist. Our intuition turned out to be right; it really was the moment for this idea to take hold.

Since then, we've been really pleased by the uptake, how media and academe and young people and business schools and academic institutions have embraced this idea. Policymakers reference social entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurship regularly.

They didn't 10 years ago. Today the White House has an Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, and there are literally hundreds of academic programs, centers and courses focused on social entrepreneurship all over the world.

We know that our "connect and celebrate" work, especially through our media and knowledge partnerships, has played a significant role in making social entrepreneurship a mainstream idea.

What we didn't know or understand very well was that with this kind of recognition comes the responsibility to prove the thesis! Today, we're no longer trying to build awareness of a concept.

Now that more folks know about social entrepreneurship, they're asking tough questions: what's the evidence that it works? In partnership with many of the world's most outstanding social entrepreneurs, we're determined to address this skepticism, to prove that social entrepreneurs and their innovations can drive environmental and social progress at scale.

Rahim Kanani: How would you characterize the relationship between the Skoll Foundation's focus on social entrepreneurship, and Jeff Skoll's founding vision for a more peaceful and prosperous world?

Sally Osberg: Jeff knew there were entrepreneurial leaders in the social sector who were every bit as creative, as focused, as disciplined, and tuned in to market feedback mechanisms as the most sophisticated and successful business entrepreneurs we both knew.

So our idea was that investing in solutions to some of the world's really tough problems could be highly leveraged if it was channeled through a social entrepreneur. This convergence of the pressing problem and the promising solution is really at the core of our investment strategy. Add in a strong organization that can execute its plans and strong partnerships to accelerate scaling, and you see real progress.

Rahim Kanani: What can scholars and practitioners of international development learn from this emerging field of social entrepreneurship? And similarly, what can social entrepreneurs learn from development experts?

Sally Osberg: To answer this question, I put myself in the shoes of the social entrepreneurs we know, most of whom are battling on two fronts. They're on the ground with people and communities, their innovations tackling poverty, sanitation, agricultural productivity, human trafficking, education and much more.

But they're also combating another scourge, a system of aid and a paradigm of development that can be inefficient, ineffective, and wasteful, and out to prove there's a better way.

One of many great examples of a social entrepreneur fighting on both these fronts is Riders for Health. The organization's approach to delivering healthcare in sub-Saharan Africa is based on a vehicle maintenance program that ensures 100 percent reliability.

In Zimbabwe, malarial mortality rates in districts served by Riders' program dropped by more than 60 percent. Riders increases the efficiency of health care workers by more than 300 percent, and has scaled to five African countries, including the Gambia, where its work has been the key to the Ministry's comprehensive national health care coverage.

Riders' founders Andrea and Barry Coleman conceived their venture after traveling in Africa and witnessing hundreds upon hundreds of broken-down vehicles abandoned on roadsides or stacked behind buildings, most of them left to rust for want of a simple part or an oil change.

As they studied the problem, they learned that standard development practice was simply to requisition and supply new vehicles, with no consideration for their maintenance. They were appalled -- at the waste of untold millions of dollars; even more, they recognized -- and rejected as utterly indefensible -- the toll on human life.

In launching and scaling Riders for Health, and in their partnerships with African national health ministries, Barry and Andrea are saving countless lives and attempting to transform wasteful development practice into one that is accountable, efficient and effective.

For more than 30 years, Bunker Roy and his Barefoot College have been challenging top-down aid-driven solutions, proving the power of empowering poor communities to develop and sustain their own solutions.

Ann Cotton's Camfed has developed a governance model that insists on full accountability for the education and protection of the girls it supports, in contrast to practices that abruptly cancel commitments or fail to enroll and empower the communities essential to each child's success.

Paul Farmer and Partners in Health proved that it was possible to deliver multi-drug resistant TB treatment in the shantytowns of Lima, achieving results superior to those common in U.S. cities; armed with this evidence, PIH persisted over ten years and finally changes WHO policy, thereby securing treatment for millions of TB victims throughout the world.

These innovative approaches to solving problems of development don't just transform lives, they crank up the heat on a top-down, bureaucratic system of aid, proving what can be done to ensure every U.S. dollar, British pound, or Zambian kwacha is effectively invested.

Rahim Kanani: In Oxford, U.K., from March 30 to April 1, the Skoll World Forum, a program of the Skoll Foundation, convenes for the 8th year in partnership with the Skoll Centre on Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford University's Said Business School. What makes this gathering unique, and why is it so important for the sector?

Sally Osberg: What makes the Skoll World Forum unique is its purpose: it is specifically designed to accelerate the impact of the world's leading social entrepreneurs. It does this by bringing the world's most outstanding social entrepreneurs together with their allies, partners, and champions -- as well as some of those skeptics I mentioned earlier -- for three days of learning, sharing, networking and deal-making.

Each year, we target a mix of delegates from sectors crucial to scaling social entrepreneurs' impact: media, policy, business, finance, philanthropy and academe. We strive as well for international representation -- north, south, east, west. For the past few years, we've had delegates from six continents and 60+ countries.

The Forum's program is carefully curated by our team, together with our colleagues at the Skoll Centre, social entrepreneurs, and hundreds of friends and experts throughout the world. It attempts to go deeply on some of the issues that social entrepreneurs are working on, providing a platform for sharing what's working and where the challenges are in education, human rights, water, sanitation, agricultural productivity and much else.

But we also build in cross-cutting sessions relevant to everyone, leadership, for example, or scaling, and carve space for those really timely issues -- change in the MENA region will be a "connect and collaborate" session this year.

At the end of the day, though, what really distinguishes the Skoll World Forum is that social entrepreneurs and their innovative solutions to the challenges of our times are front and center. They infuse the Forum with its special feeling of community and they inspire everyone who attends with a real sense that change is possible -- because they're doing it!

Rahim Kanani: As you look ahead into the next decade, what worries you the most about the sector of social entrepreneurship? And at the same time, what are you most optimistic about?

Sally Osberg: Well, it's hard not to be overwhelmed by the scale and complexity of the challenges confronting us all, whether it's geopolitical instability, climate change, resource depletion, food security, disease, and the deep misery of poverty: these are truly formidable challenges that affect us all. So when I think about the efforts of social entrepreneurs and the magnitude of these challenges -- well, it's all pretty daunting!

That said, I also know that we work with many social entrepreneurs whose innovations have extraordinary potential to make real headway; what they need are what all entrepreneurs need -- talented teams, great partners, serious investment, and supportive policies.

Our job at the Foundation is to help deliver value that accelerates meaningful progress. When I reflect on where we've done this well, I look at our work with Riders for Health, where we've invested more than grant support -- depositing funds in a Gambian bank to secure the financing needed for Riders to purchase the fleet of vehicles it now leases to the country's Health Ministry; funding the Rockhopper/BBC series that included a profile of Riders that the organization used to accelerate signing an MOU with Zambia; introducing Riders to OPIC at the Skoll World Forum; and more -- all for the purpose of ensuring millions of Africans gain access to the vaccines, medicine, and treatments that save lives.

Rahim Kanani: If you were giving a virtual commencement speech to the World MBA class of 2011, what would be the opening paragraph?

Sally Osberg: Each year at the Forum, I am the master of ceremonies for our Skoll Awards Ceremony. At last year's event, I opened by quoting the poet Mary Oliver -- "Tell me," she writes, "what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"

For that World MBA class, I think that's the right question. For inspiration, I'd go on to describe what some of our Skoll social entrepreneurs are doing with their extraordinary lives.

Knowing that MBA students are interested in scalable business models, I might reference Amitabha Sadangi and IDE India's micro-irrigation products. Amitabha has pioneered a base of the pyramid technology solution for India's rural farmers; its KB-drip system, which can be purchased in modules that cost less than a couple of dollars, can bolster agricultural productivity by 40-60 percent and lower the intensity of water usage by 50 percent.

And because I also know MBAs are dialed into finance, I'd probably talk about Mindy Lubber and Ceres, which is getting big institutional investors-and by big I mean investors representing more than $7 trillion of assets under management-to factor carbon and climate risk into their investment decision-making. Talk about leverage!

I've talked to hundreds, probably more like thousands by now, of students -- undergraduates and graduates -- over the years, and I know they get it. With my window into the Said Business School at Oxford, where the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship has been hugely influential in attracting great students, I see legions of young people who know that business as usual is unsustainable, that large scale solutions are not only possible but necessary, and that they're ready to get to work!

And while I know you only asked about the first paragraph, I'd want to remind them -- probably toward the end -- that none of us can do much that matters in the world without the support of our families, friends, colleagues, and partners.

I've been incredibly blessed in my work at the Skoll Foundation to have that kind of support -- from those dearest to me, from a founder and chairman who is everything he should be and more, from our tremendous board, gifted colleagues, community of extraordinary social entrepreneurs, and amazing partners. I can never thank them enough.

This interview is part of an in-depth series in advance of the 2011 Skoll World Forum held later this month in Oxford, England. This series includes discussions with Richard Boly, director of the Office of Diplomacy at the U.S. State Department, John Marks, founder and president for Search for Common Ground, Christopher Davis, international campaigns director for the Body Shop International, Eric Nee, managing editor of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, and many more. For more information, please click here.