Five Big Myths About Techies and Philanthropy

There's an old saying that if you've seen one foundation... you've seen one foundation. It speaks to the diversity and quirkiness of philanthropy, where funders have myriad motivations and approaches.

It's a good adage to bear in mind before you start generalizing about any group of philanthropistslike, say, donors from the tech world.

I get why these folks make for inviting targetsbecause of their wealth, their youth, their talk of reinventing the world, and what can seem like a cavalier disregard for the century of philanthropy that preceded their arrival on the scene. 

Frankly, this crowd is scary. They've already colonized our lives with new technologies and services, and loom large over our culture. And now it can also seem, as William Schambra writes today in NPQ, that they "intend fundamentally to reshape the social sector in their own image, based on their supreme faith in advanced technology."

In fact, though, many of the drive-by critiques of tech philanthropy are way off, including Schambra's, because they miss the rich diversity of tech funders. 

At Inside Philanthropy, we've now looked closely at the giving of nearly every tech philanthropist and written repeatedly about the top leaders in this area, including Mark Zuckerberg, Marc Benioff, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Gordon Moore, and others.

Related - IP Guide to Tech Philanthhropists

Based on what we've learned about these funders, here are a few myths about techies and philanthropy.

1. Tech Philanthropists Have an Outsized Faith in Technological Solutions

Not so. Looking across tech philanthropy, I would say these funders are only marginally more interested in technology than other funders. In fact, over the past few months, I've heard a lot more from legacy foundation leaders like Darren Walker about technology than anyone from Silicon Valley, and the big push in philanthropy on net neutrality has mainly come from those traditional funders. One of them, the Knight Foundation, is more infatuated with technology that any Silicon Valley foundation I know of. 

To be sure, in some areas, tech philanthropists are betting heavily on digital approaches to solving problems. Their faith in blended learning and technology to personalize education is a good example. But what I'm mostly seeing is money flowing to some familiar stuff. Google co-founder Sergey Brin has poured millions into Parkinson's research and anti-poverty organizations. Sean Parker is putting big money into immunology research. Google's Eric Schmidt and wife Wendy have put millions into environmental organizations, including supporting green journalism. Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife Cari Tuna are investing heavily in policy advocacy, among other approaches. Tim Gill and David Bohnett, earlier tech winners, have underwritten the push for LGBT rights. Intel billionaire Gordon Moore is into saving rain forests, improving patient care, and backing basic science. Ted Waitt wants to rescue marine ecosystems. GoDaddy's Bob Parsons helps veterans and funds human services. David Duffield is funding no-kill animal shelters. Recently, a number of tech donors stepped forward to help contain Ebola, including Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg

2. Techies Are "Detached and Abstract"

Tech philanthropists are often seen as Utopian, pursuing abstract visions at a remove from reality. Schambra writes that "the passionate intent of the high-tech donor takes shape in a rarefied and ethereal world..." 

That generalization, too, is off. Look at Marc Benioff, one of the most influential philanthropists in the tech community right now. His main thing been pushing that community to get more involved in giving at the community level, solving basic human problems, and he is anything but a "detached and abstract" kind of donor, to use Schambra's words. His biggest gifts have been for children's hospitals in the Bay Area, and he's led the push to get tech companies and donors to put money into anti-poverty work in the region, helping raising millions of dollars for groups that are very much on the front lines of today's inequality. 

Or look at Mark Zuckerberg, who I've written about often in the past year, and who has given away more money than nearly any other tech philanthropist lately. Along with his wife Priscilla Chan, who's a pediatrician, Zuckerberg strikes me as very grounded in the realities of social inequality. 

The latest big Zuckerberg/Chan gift was for $75 million to a San Francisco General Hospital, a public hospital that plays a crucial role in providing care to the city's low-income residents. If you know about hospital gifts, you know public hospitals usually don't pull in the big money from donors. But Chan knows first-hand the health care access problems facing poorer Americans, and the couple previously gave money to a clinic serving low-income people in Silicon Valley. As for education, Zuckerberg is passionate enough about this issue that he taught a class at a public school in East Menlo Park, one of the poorest areas of Silicon Valley. Zuckerberg's Newark gift may have been a disaster, but he seems to be learning and evolving as an ed philanthropist, and his $120 million give to improve Silicon Valley schools appears to be more thoughtfully designed. 

3. Techies Are Hell Bent on Disrupting the Social Sector

Techies may be intent on reinventing the world in their day jobs; as philanthropists, they are not that much different than many other funders. Sure, some of them have big ideas for shaking up philanthropy differently, but many do not. Zuckerberg, for example, wants to make major changes in education—as do many funders from various sectors, notably finance—but he hasn't talked much about changing how the social sector operates. Indeed, I can't think of many funders who want to "fundamentally to reshape the social sector in their own image," as Schambra writes. Most of these people are focused on substantive change in regard to the issues they're worried about, not the means of making change. 

Pierre Omidyar and Jeff Skoll are the prime examples of would-be disrupters, but even these donors have given many millions for pretty typical causes. A recent, notable example of the reinvention theme is Good Ventures, the foundation run by Dustin Moskovitz and Cari Tuna. Through its Open Philanthropy initiative, the foundation wants to improve philanthropy in various ways, so there is more sharing, learning, and risk taking in this sector. But those are hardly radical goals, and are shared by many legacy funders as well.

What I've really been struck by is how uncreative many tech philanthropists are, relative to how they've earned their fortunes. For instance, Jeff Bezos has reinvented commerce with Amazon, but his philanthropy has largely taken the form of traditional gifts for scientific and medical research. 

4. Tech Philanthropists Are Arrogant Young Whippersnappers

It's true that twentysomething techies can often be insufferable with their endless talk of how they're reinventing the world. (Even if, um, they actually have reinvented the world.) But I don't see a lot of that attitude toward their philanthropy. Rather, I see people who—like most philanthropists—want to use their money to make the world a better place, and are realistic about the odds. To me, these people don't sound any more arrogant than folks at legacy foundations, heirs or funders from other sectors. 

Yes, many do have a faith that philanthropy and the social sector can do a better job at solving problems, and that view can seem dismissive of what existing funders have long been doing. But if you look closely at the actual statements top tech philanthropists have made about their giving, as I have, what you'll find isn't as much disdainful hubris as optimism that new breakthroughs are possible if we push harder—an optimism that comes, no doubt, from seeing technological breakthroughs upend society. In any case, newcomers to any field are often convinced they have something fresh to offer, which is the way it should be. Generational change and modernization is a good thing, remember. And if it's occasionally grating, and people over-reach or reinvent the wheel, that's okay. 

Oh, and one other thing: Not all tech philanthropists are young. Many of these donors are older, more seasoned people, and are quite modest and cautious in their philanthropy—another reason to be wary of stereotypes. 

5. Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen Is the High Goddess of Tech Philanthropy

Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen is occasionally cast as a guru of this world, and is something of a lightening rod. Schambra is her latest critic, arguing that her views are symptomatic of a misguided techno-Utopianism and an arrogant insularity. 

Arrillaga-Andreessen, though, is not herself a technologist and doesn't speak for this crowd. It's not even clear how much influence she has with them. Arrillaga-Andreessen's big thing has been empowering ordinary people to become philanthropists and she's been a proponent of using technology for crowdfunding. But as far as I can tell, few top tech funders have embraced this approach, and instead operate in a fashion more typical of major donors.

In any case, Arrillaga-Andreessen is hardly the only person who sees the potential of technology to revolutionize giving by small donors. These views are common, and one can see why: Small donations and technology have turned political fundraising upside down over the past decade. Why not philanthropy, too?

One last thing about Arrillaga-Andreessen: While she's easy to caricature, given her inherited wealth and glamour, anyone who knows about her family and backstory knows that this is a person who embraced a strong family tradition of giving and service early in life, when many rich kids might have out partying. Is she really the right target for criticism if you believe in philanthropy? 

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Ultimately, the biggest thing to keep in mind about tech philanthropy is just how large and diverse this world is, and how difficult it is to generalize about these funders. Caricature at your own risk. 

David Callahan is founder and editor of Inside Philanthropy (davidc@insidephilanthropy.com)