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Skoll Foundation: Broadening the impact

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Ret Boney

Every day from his small office in the southern Philippines, John Piermont Montilla logs into an online community to hear the latest goings-on among thousands of individuals working to make the world a more just and livable place.

Through the Social Edge community, he taps into a global body of wisdom he uses to better help the children who live and work on the crowded streets of Iloilo City.

Through the connective forces of social media, Montilla has access to Social Edge, the Skoll Foundation’s online community of thousands of social entrepreneurs.

That’s exactly what the founders envisioned when the website was launched six years ago to help social entrepreneurs across the world take their ventures to scale for maximum impact.

“It grew into something quite significant,” says Victor d’Allant, the executive director of Social Edge, which attracts about 50,000 unique users each month. “Not in size so much, but in terms of impact.”

For the Skoll Foundation, whose mission is to empower social entrepreneurs to solve the world’s most pressing problems, that heightened impact is the beauty of social media.

“Social media helps us facilitate the kinds of networks we need to achieve our mission,” says d’Allant. “Your impact is greater because you have more thought leadership out there. You’re building relationships with the people you want to connect with. It increases your chances of discovery. It increases your relevancy and currency.”

Social media also broaden the foundation’s reach, allowing it to find and connect with the best and brightest minds in the social-change arena.

“We have been thinking about the best way to reach the people we want to reach,” says d’Allant. “And that’s to go where they are – places like iTunes and YouTube. If that’s where the audience is, that’s where we should be.”

So the foundation regularly uploads videos to those sites, telling the stories of social entrepreneurs and making their advice available.

Social media allow for that traditional marketing and public-relations function, but also provide more than the one-way megaphone approach, says Jill Finlayson, web marketing manager for Social Edge.

It enables the more reciprocal, two-way exchange that audiences now demand.

“What’s exciting is that social media is a contact sport,” she says. “It’s a team sport. You have to get dirty and get involved.”

That level of involvement provides the foundation with an excellent opportunity for learning, says d’Allant.

“If you just listen, you’ll find out so much about your field,” says d’Allant.

And by diving into the global discussion, inviting and disseminating good ideas and nurturing relationships with thousands of changemakers, the foundation is furthering its own mission.

“It’s about advancing our theory of change,” says Cynthia Dai, interim vice president of marketing for Skoll. “Social entrepreneurs are disruptive forces for good. Social media allows us to enlist the kind of resources social entrepreneurs need to achieve the kind of impact we think they can achieve.”

This year, the Skoll Foundation ramped up its social-media efforts surrounding the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship, an annual gathering in Oxford, England, of more than 800 people from across the world who are active in social change.

The goal of the forum is to bring together social entrepreneurs to identify and share best practices, see where the field is moving and provide opportunities for networking and collaboration.

Deviating from the more traditional media plan it used in previous years, Skoll this year focused on social media.

Twitter feeds from the foundation updated its approximately 680,000 followers on a real-time basis, complemented by attendees’ own Twitter streams.

And the foundation invited a handful of bloggers to attend and write about the goings-on, with no strings attached, and received posts from a variety of outlets, including Huffington Post and Stanford Social Innovation Review, as well as coverage in Hong Kong and the Middle East.

“It’s based on the theory that it’s not about bringing people to our website,” says d’Allant. “It’s about connecting with the people we want to reach out to.”

That said, page-views on the forum’s website surged 149 percent over the previous year, he says, with the peak occurring during the World Forum.

And that increase was not due to links from other sites, he says, but from individuals who heard about Skoll’s work and sought out more information.

“It allowed the six billion people who cannot physically attend the event to be there one way or another,” says d’Allant of social media.

And for those who were able to attend, the foundation created an online space where almost eight in 10 attendees uploaded profiles of themselves and exchanged a total of about 2,500 messages, making introductions, sharing ideas and making plans to physically meet up at the conference.

Facilitating those introductions and conversations is part of the evolving role of foundations, says Finlayson.

“Foundations want to do more than give money,” she says. “They want their grantees to be successful. Social media is enabling foundations to provide more value and a more complete level of support. It would have been difficult to do that without these tools.”
But deploying social media well, and as part of the overall strategy of the foundation, isn’t easy, says d’Allant.

“It’s time consuming,” he says. “It takes time and resources and shouldn’t be outsourced to an intern.”

And navigating the shifting sands of evolving technologies requires a degree of agility many foundations lack.

“This year’s questions and answers are different from next year’s,” he says. “That means we need to be flexible. And let’s face it, foundations aren’t always built to be flexible.”

Nor are they generally inviting of risk and controversy, two elements inherently involved when turning over the communication reins to people outside the organization.

“It is decentralized, real-time and less controlled,” says Finlayson. “There’s a behavior change that has to happen within organizations.”

But while social media can result in controversy, that’s not all bad, says d’Allant.

“We see that as a benefit,” he says. “If we can bring smart, intelligent people into the conversation, it can only be good.”

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