3 Questions for… David Rothschild of the Skoll Foundation

Editors Note: Leading up to the U.S. Philanthropy and WASH seminar at World Water Week next Wednesday, August 29th, in Stockholm, we decided to pose three questions to the panel’s esteemed group of foundation and NGO leaders to give you a preview of their conversation. We will post a new interview each day this week so check back daily or sign up for e-mail updates. In this post, David Rothschild, principal of the Skoll Foundation’s portfolio team, speaks about the Foundation’s focus on social entrepreneurship and rethinking traditional funder-grantee relationships to drive large scale change. 

David Rothschild, Principal of the Portfolio Team at the Skoll Foundation

1. Describe what your organization does and what your role is.

The Skoll Foundation drives large scale change by investing in, connecting and celebrating social entrepreneurs and the innovators who help them solve the world’s most pressing problems. Jeff Skoll created The Skoll Foundation in 1999 to pursue his vision of a sustainable world of peace and prosperity. Social entrepreneurs are society’s change agents — creators of innovations that disrupt the status quo and transform our world for the better. By identifying the people and programs already bringing positive change around the world, we empower them to extend their reach, deepen their impact, and fundamentally improve society.

We are now one of the leading foundations in the field of social entrepreneurship. Over the past 12 years, we have awarded more than $315 million, including investments in 91 remarkable social entrepreneurs and 74 organizations on five continents around the world that are creating a brighter future for underserved communities. In addition to our grantmaking, we fund a $20 million+ portfolio of program-related and mission-aligned investments. In 2003, we partnered with the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford to launch the first academic center dedicated to social entrepreneurship, the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship

The Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship celebrates organizations with high impact innovations that have a proven track record and are poised to scale their impact. Each year the foundation awards 4 to 6 organizations, led by an individual social entrepreneur. The award comes with 3 years of core support funding, usually between $750k and $1.5m total. Along with the award comes significant recognition; the organization becomes part of our family of Skoll Awardees, qualifying it for other opportunities. More information about the Skoll Awards, applications, and criteria can be found here.

Beyond investments and partnerships, we also host the annual Skoll World Forum, the premier conference on social entrepreneurship, and share the stories of social entrepreneurs through partnerships with leading film and broadcast organizations, such as the PBS NewsHour and the Sundance Institute, which help drive public awareness of social entrepreneurship and its potential to address the critical issues of our time.

As a principal of the portfolio team, I manage a variety of key relationships, including funded social entrepreneurs, domain experts, policy makers, corporate partners and co-funders. I develop and structure funding opportunities to drive large scale change in the focus areas of the foundation, with a special emphasis on water and sanitation, as well as tropical deforestation.

2. Tell us one provocative question or issue you hope to tackle on the U.S. Philanthropy and WASH panel, and why. 

How can funders and potential grantees get past the “hogwash?” “Reporting” in the traditional sense goes just one way — from grantee to funder. This often ends up as data for the archives. How can we capture information in a way that’s useful for better decision-making by both funders and grantees?

The organizations doing the work on the ground are the ones implementing WASH strategies — they are the ones testing new ideas and approaches, learning from mistakes, and engaging directly with the communities and individuals that need improved WASH outcomes. Ideally, they are constantly innovating and adjusting. Yet traditional funder-grantee relationships can discourage or even stifle innovation. Funder-grantee relationships can be blurred by the desires of funders to only hear about the “impacts” their specific funding is driving, or by NGOs painting an unrealistically rosy picture hoping that funding may follow. Real world learning that leads to improved outcomes often results from talking openly about mistakes and actually making the big course corrections that can be so hard to do. When a funder and grantee have signed a grant agreement focused on specific activities targeting explicit outcomes, a grantee can become wedded to those activities, even if a course correction would actually improve those very outcomes. And if that is true, then what are the impacts that foundations really reward? What’s the behavior change that could unwind this perpetuation of only rewarding successful short-term implementations? How can funders and grantees use reporting processes productively to inform decision-making and achieve desired long-term outcomes? Can we do more to fund on-the-ground, real-time innovation? What are some of the best practices that ensure funder-grantee relationships that drive large scale change — the high impact outcomes we all want?

3. What are you most looking forward to about Stockholm and/or World Water Week?

I haven’t been to World Water Week for a few years, so I am looking forward to reconnecting with friends and colleagues, meeting some new folks, and learning about the latest research, innovations, and progress in the field.