Meet the (Non-Tech!) Silicon Valley Donor Searching for Replicable Solutions

At Inside Philanthropy, we've devoted a good deal of time talking about the various nuances of Silicon Valley philanthropy. One recurring theme is how many of these donors—particularly those in the millennial demographic—don't particularly care much for the arts.

We attribute this disinterest to various factors, including a scientific mindset that draws donors to effective altruism, which argues that opera won't save lives. Silicon Valley types, the thinking goes, are wired differently than, say, Herb Alpert and Alice Walton. They're ones-and-zeros types. They like predictability, measurement, and predictably measurable results. 

Of course, this psychographic inclination can be a helpful asset, particularly when it comes to the perennial quest in philanthropy for replicable solutions.   

If something really makes sense and works, that should be true again and again, across many different places.

Alas, of course, change isn't so simple—but if only it could be. Which brings us, quite naturally, to California, where Silicon Valley real estate investor Jon Freeman has given $1.5 million to Santa Clara University’s Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship to explore the best ways to replicate effective social business models.

The school frames the challenge accordingly:

Many social enterprises address similar problems afflicting the global poor—such as lack of access to drinking water or to clean, affordable energy—with highly localized solutions. But could the best solutions be better replicated across regions or industries, helping lift more people out of poverty more quickly? What if, for instance, a safe drinking water business validated in one location could be reproduced and introduced to other geographic regions that also lack potable water?

Of course, many foundations fund the research for replicable solutions, particularly as they pertain to challenges in poor countries. And a number of tech funders are keen on social entrepreneurs. But the confluence of Silicon Valley dollars with a research institution like the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship is a bit different.

For one thing, there's the center itself, which only recently emerged in its present form last year, after Santa Clara University received a $25 million gift from tech winner Jeff Miller, and his wife Karen. Now, with more money coming in from another philanthropist, the picture we're starting to get here is of Silicon Valley types funders building up a local think tank of sorts, one working to build up "global, innovation-based entrepreneurship in service to humanity."

Related: Millions to Foster SocialEntrepreneurship on a California Campus. Will More Follow?

And what about the Silicon Valley donor in question, Jon Freeman? Well, for starters, he doesn't come from the tech world. He's the president and principal owner of the San Jose-based real estate investment firm Stonecrest Financial. Freeman earned his BA in Business Administration from the University of San Diego and is a California licensed Real Estate Broker.

This background is yet another reminder that there's plenty of money in Silicon Valley that has little to do with the tech world. Indeed, some of the most high-profile and well-known philanthropic families in the region made their fortunes in real estate. We're thinking specifically of the Sobrato, Peery, and Arrillaga families. 

Often, though, the tech mindset seems to have rubbed off a bit on these folks. And Freeman sounds quite a bit like some of the tech donors we come across. 

According to Stonecrest's website, Jon is dedicated to "hand up" philanthropy by supporting social enterprise and women’s education initiatives that empower women to lift themselves out of poverty. Needless to say, his gift to the Miller Center—of which he's an advisory board member—certainly fits the bill.

"I have always believed that the way to tackle challenges such as poverty or the negative impacts of climate change is by eradicating the barriers to opportunity," said Freeman. "Social entrepreneurs are more likely to build successful enterprises if they can start with a blueprint or proof of concept that has already been developed and confirmed somewhere else in the real world."