Is philanthropy’s ascendant class of tech entrepreneurs a timely boon for the field? It’s complicated.
Ok, let this soak in: 12 of the top 50 most generous donors last year were tech entrepreneurs, up from just six a year ago. Together, these 12 (24% of the so called Philanthropy 50) contributed 47% of the $9.8-billion donated by all 50 donors combined. The presence of so much new money gained from new technologies has the potential to be truly culturally game-changing. Here’s why (and maybe why not):
Commitment to accelerated pace and grand-scale uptake. More traditional philanthropy has a measured pace and a moderate approach to scale. Generally speaking, tech entrepreneurs don’t. In their work, they privilege speed (being early market-makers like Amazon or eBay), nimbleness (launching Google’s Gmail in an extended beta phase) and experimentation (embracing lean principles of ‘build, measure, learn’ broadly). Unlike philanthropy where scale is often about multi-site replication or individual program expansion, tech entrepreneurs think in terms of millions of users, followers and customers and a marginal, incremental cost of acquisition for each new customer. If we are truly going to build a new urban practicethat gets dramatically better results for low income people in the U.S., and attacks growing disparities, then we need this kind of big thinking.
Tech entrepreneurs think in terms of millions of users, followers and customers.
Technology as a given. Having co-founded One Economy Corporation, a technology-led NGO in 2000, I remain confounded that there is still very little philanthropy, as a percentage of the whole that is dedicated to developing technology-led solutions to many of our most challenging problems. Over that same period of time, technology investment has been the darling of Silicon Valley; competing only with biotechnology and clean tech for the greatest amount of investment, annually. It’s hard to imagine that tech donors’ giving won’t reflect this bias and understanding of the transformational potential of technology. While I’m encouraged by the recent announcement of #NetGain by a partnership of five leading philanthropies, including the Ford and MacArthur Foundations, who are exploring how philanthropy can shape Internet policy and utilize innovative, digital strategies for the common good, these tech donors can only help make that commitment even more meaningful.
Bridging the old and the new. My almost unadulterated enthusiasm for this changing landscape is tempered by three considerations. More traditional philanthropy has long recognized these, but many tech entrepreneurs have not yet explicitly focused on them. These are the sheer complexity of today’s problems; the challenge that solutions must be developed with communities that the wealthy often are disconnected from; and the importance of building on past work.
Technologists can get so enamored of the technical solution…
Technologists can get so enamored of the technical solution, because that’s what has worked for them in business, that they can lose sight of the much bigger, more complex problem at hand that technology alone cannot solve. Similarly, I’ve had emerging philanthropists, tech and otherwise, tell me that their combination of growing up in suburban communities and living among extreme wealth can blind them from the real, day to day challenges facing low income families. Recent controversies in San Francisco underscore just how damaging this disconnect can be.
Finally, a lot of money and commitment cannot replace the knowledge and lessons learned by experience. Partnering in a meaningful and engaged way with traditional philanthropy, like those in #NetGain and Living Cities, as well as high impact leaders, NGOs and local governments, can bridge these gaps and build upon strong, existing foundations, but it’s not usually people’s first instincts. These considerations should be addressed head on.
Yes, it will bring a flood of money, but it’s the culture change that it could potentially bring to the world of philanthropy and social change work that might make all the difference.