Silicon Valley Philanthropy:  Proceed at Your Own Risk!

Dear Commons Community,

Alessandra Stanley, a New York Times reporter, has an op-ed in today’s paper, reviewing the new philanthropic style of Silicon Valley’s tech billionaires. Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerburg and others are all referred to for their philanthropic activity, some of which leaves a lot to be desired. For example:

“idealistic tech leaders find themselves giving back to a world that complains that they took too much in the first place. The skepticism is all the more wounding…

Academics and relief workers have been grumbling for a while about so-called philanthrocapitalists who try to micromanage their giving. The writer David Rieff questions the tech-centric approach to fighting global poverty of the Gates Foundation in a new book, “The Reproach of Hunger.” In “The Prize,” the journalist Dale Russakoff looks at what went wrong with Mr. Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift to Newark to resurrect its schools.

And the transformative power of Silicon Valley is slapped down by one of its own in “Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change From the Cult of Technology,” written by a Microsoft apostate, Kentaro Toyama.

Rob Reich, a political-science professor at Stanford who is also a co-director of the Stanford Center for Philanthropy and Civil Society, notes that the tax deduction that comes with a billionaire’s grant to charter schools is essentially money that won’t be spent on public schools, calling Silicon Valley largess “an exercise of power that is unaccountable, nontransparent and tax-subsidized.”

While tech titans champion efforts to strengthen the social safety net for the most disadvantaged, many express less concern for the stagnating middle class. Alec Ross, who was an innovation adviser to Hillary Rodham Clinton when she was secretary of state and is the author of “The Industries of the Future,” notes that entrepreneurs privately complain about workers, skilled and unskilled, who haven’t kept pace with the new tech-based economy.

“You hear derision for the working- and middle-class people who think that their education ends at the age of 22,” Mr. Ross said. “People who want their work to stay the same without doing anything to improve themselves.

Nor is there much talk in these circles about taxing the rich to even the playing field. A few tech billionaires like Reed Hastings, a Netflix founder, have said they support raising taxes on the wealthy. There are many more who don’t publicly oppose a tax increase but feel they are paying plenty already. There is also a libertarian streak in parts of Silicon Valley that allows some to believe they can spend their tax dollars better than the government ever will.

Marc Benioff (net worth: $4.1 billion), a native San Franciscan who founded Salesforce, has personally given $250 million to the San Francisco children’s hospital that bears his name. His company also lavishes grants, employee time and its cloud computing products on many nonprofits, including San Francisco’s troubled public schools — and Mr. Benioff, unlike many reform-minded tech benefactors, lets the principals decide how to spend his money.

That’s a lesson that Mr. Zuckerberg learned as well. Last year, he and his wife, Priscilla Chin, quietly announced another $120 million donation to underserved public schools in the Bay Area. They haven’t given up on spreading their own vision for education, however: In October, they announced that next year they would open a free private school, “The Primary School,” for poor students in East Palo Alto, a struggling neighborhood a few miles away from Facebook headquarters.”

This op-ed has many pearls of wisdom and is wealth worth a read for those interested in lessons learned and in some cases not learned in the world of Silicon Valley philanthropy.



Comments are closed.