Innovation for good

By Merrill Wolf

Lance Henderson’s unusual new title says it all: as vice president for program and impact at the Skoll Foundation, he is part of what some are calling a new wave of U.S. philanthropy that is rethinking both the methods and measures of investing in social change.

After nearly 20 years “on the other side of the table,” Henderson is moving from grant-seeker to grant-maker, full of enthusiasm for social entrepreneurship, a concept championed by, among other young business-leaders-turned-philanthropists, his new boss, foundation chairman Jeff Skoll.

The first full-time employee and president of eBay, the innovative and wildly-successful online-auction site, Skoll, now 41, was quick to share his good fortune.

He encouraged eBay to start a foundation in 1998 and launched his own a year later.

The Silicon Valley-based Skoll Foundation focuses on “investing in, connecting and celebrating” entrepreneurs working for lasting social change.

The foundation’s assets now total almost $650 million, according to a spokesperson, and in fiscal year 2006 it distributed about $29 million to 116 grantees.

“Social entrepreneur is a name for a type of person who has brought together the discipline that often is characteristic of the business world, with a passion to apply those skills to large-scale social change,” Henderson says.

Refining that definition and promoting awareness of social entrepreneurship as a recognized career path are among his plans for the role he assumed in June.

Having applied similar principles combating HIV/AIDS, Henderson doesn’t need to be convinced that the approach works.

Lance Henderson

Job: Vice president, program and impact, the Skoll Foundation

Born: Norfolk, Virginia, 1956

Education: B.S., mechanical engineering, University of California, Berkeley; M.B.A., Harvard Business School

Family: Partner of 26 years, Peter Atanasio

Hobbies: Biking, cooking, yoga

Recently read: “How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas,” by David Bornstein; “The Perfect Store: Inside eBay,” by Adam Cohen

Inspiration: John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Both represent a world of hope.”

He began his nonprofit career in 1988 at the Names Project Foundation, best known for promoting awareness of the epidemic’s impact through the AIDS Memorial Quilt.He then spent 12 years in executive positions at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, which has pioneered new approaches to HIV/AIDS services, education, policy advocacy and other areas.He helped lead the group’s expansion to the global level through the 2001 creation of the Pangaea Global AIDS Foundation.

Growing up in Monterrey, Calif., Henderson always felt a social duty, thanks largely to his activist mother, he says.

“The values [she] passed down made me sensitive that there’s a larger responsibility in life than managing one’s income and business career,” he says.

But living and working in San Francisco in the early 1980s, where he was “confronted with the ravages of the epidemic,” honed that sense of social duty.

“I was struck by what felt like the really inadequate response, both in government and the private sector, to the epidemic,” Henderson recalls. “I saw both a need and an opportunity” to contribute.

At the Skoll Foundation, which focuses on six broad issue areas including tolerance and human rights, health and social equity, Henderson hopes to help refine both the art and science of social entrepreneurship.

“We have a theory of change that a lot of impact can be had with a modest amount of money if you can find organizations led by dynamic leaders with proof of concept and ready to scale it,” he explains. “I’m charged with assessing the validity of that theory and making sure we’re measuring our own impact.”

One aspect of the foundation’s mission that interests Henderson is its focus on connecting and celebrating social entrepreneurs.

The foundation hosts a popular website,, and an annual global forum at Oxford University, where grantees and others can exchange ideas and practical information.

“The best work often happens in the trenches,” Henderson says, with little or no outside attention. “We’re aware of the power of finding those people and investing in them. Part of what we can do to help them attract more resources, both human and financial, is to get their stories out in the media.”

Among grantees’ stories that have captivated and inspired Henderson is that of Benetech, a California group using new technologies to help document and publicize human-rights violations and to make the contents of whole libraries accessible to people who are visually impaired.

Another is Campaign for Female Education, which fights poverty and disease in Africa by helping girls complete their educations and become community leaders.

Born of one woman’s determination to make a difference, the nonprofit, based in Cambridge, England, has grown from sending 32 girls to school with funds raised at a bake sale in 1993 to supporting the education of nearly 250,000 children in four African countries in 2005.

Commenting on recent news about people of great means turning to philanthropy at young ages, Henderson says, “It feels like an exciting, golden age of philanthropy.”

The trend “allows for a lot of innovation and opportunity over time to evolve the thinking,” he says.

People like Jeff Skoll “are creating such a changed landscape about how people feel about their wealth,” Henderson says. “In 30 years, we’ll be able to look back and understand philanthropy, and what’s possible, very differently.”

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