Don Gips joined the Skoll Foundation in early April, taking over leadership responsibilities from Interim President and COO, Richard Fahey. Don brings a wealth of experience in both the public and private sectors and has long collaborated with and supported social entrepreneurs. Though he maintains that he’s still very much in a listening and learning mode, he shared a bit of his time recently to chat about how he sees the work of the Skoll Foundation and the potential for multi-sector collaboration for large-scale change.
Zach Slobig: Let’s talk a bit about what brought you to the Skoll Foundation and how you see our role in supporting those who aim to solve big, wicked problems.
Don Gips: What drew me to this organization is the ability to work for someone [Jeff Skoll] who’s had the foresight to create an incredible platform focused on the world’s greatest changemakers. To invest in social entrepreneurs and work with side-by-side with their efforts to change the world is a unique opportunity. This is an incredible gift, to provide resources and support to people trying to change the world, and it’s a heavy burden—that gift. We have to make the most of it.
I started my career working with social entrepreneurs before we really knew that’s what they were called. Skoll has helped to define social entrepreneurship and build a platform around it to engage them, and I think the biggest surprise I’ve had is how beloved the Foundation is for having done that and done it with humility.
As I think about where we go as a Foundation, to create true systems change or equilibrium change, I believe it will take knowledge of how government works, knowledge of how the private sector works, and how philanthropy works. I feel blessed to have been in all those worlds and to be able to bring my experiences to bear here.
Zach: With your wealth of experience in the public sector, what’s been a great example of the potential for government to innovate and sustain large-scale change on big, thorny problems?
Don: Many social entrepreneurs create their innovations to address failures that government is not tackling. But if you really want to create systems change, at some point, government will be at least part of that answer. So, what’s our role to help social entrepreneurs go from being a catalyst working on the outside to working with government?
One our most interesting experiments I think around that is Co-Impact, which has that explicit effort of government collaboration. I look at something like Harambee in South Africa as another great example. It saw a failure in how training and job placement was not happening, and now government has become the key partner, adopter, and funder. That allows them to scale out in a hugely different way.
Zach: When you think about the potential impact of a convergence of the public, private, civic, and philanthropy sectors intersecting on a single problem to create powerful, large-scale change, what comes to mind?
Don: There are so many examples really. Take Gates working in Nigeria with Aliko Dangote in the private sector to get rid of polio. That was a huge victory that took government, philanthropy, and business working together.
The whole HIV-AIDS response in South Africa is also an interesting story on so many levels. The Bush administration created a response outside of the South African government because that government wasn’t yet a willing partner working with for-profit and not-for-profit entities. That created a number of social entrepreneurs, including some who we funded, to help lead the response with a parallel healthcare system.
When the new government came in, it was willing to take on this challenge of integrating this parallel system into primary healthcare. Congress loved funding PEPFAR because they could find statistics on how many lives were directly saved with this support. What we were advocating for was enabling a system, which means you’re saving them indirectly and thus it became harder to measure direct impact in terms of lives saved, but that’s the equilibrium change that you want over time.
Of course, there’s lots of examples from the portfolio of Skoll Awardees as well—take Ceres for example. They’ve shown incredible impact in their work to mobilize networks of investors, corporations, and the public sector to adopt sustainable business practices and shape climate smart policy.
Zach: I’m thinking also of your early work on AmeriCorps—that approach to building a multi-sector movement around service and social change is something that’s now incorporated into the fabric of American civil society. If we look at the Skoll portfolio, there’s some half a dozen organizations that were inspired and shaped by AmeriCorps.
Don: AmeriCorps really was started by a bunch of social entrepreneurs with a vision. I think if you looked in the ’60s, it was more about activism, then social entrepreneurs came along with a vision to create these new models, then realized that the best way to get this to scale and grow was through government.
In designing a new system, the interesting challenge was the balancing act between not creating a big new government bureaucracy and finding a way to support the entrepreneurial models that existed, to marry them with government resources at scale.
If I look back on my career, it’s one of the things I’m most proud of because its design was purposeful to make it resilient to changes in political whims by having it be state, local, and private sector supported. That was a design principle from day one, and if you could do this with every one of our social entrepreneurs who has a great idea, that could be an ideal model.
This is the first in an ongoing series of conversations with Skoll Foundation CEO Don Gips.
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