Do Techies Have Any Interest in Funding the Arts? Maybe

Loyal readers know what we are big fans of the HBO show Silicon Valley. The comedy series does a great job at spoofing the absurd amount of wealth flowing through the region, where venture capitalists shower unassuming twenty-something programmers with tens of millions of dollars to fund a start-up conjured up in a garage.

All this money has also meant a boom in philanthropy, which we've been tracking closely at IP. But here's a question on our minds lately: Just how many of these emerging donors care about the arts? After all, we often hear that tech donors think in highly utilitarian ways about philanthropy, looking to save or improve lives in the most cost-effective way possible. Is a new donor class obsessed with malaria nets and lower-cost text books likely to pitch in big for theater or classic music or arts education? 

The signs have not been promising. In a 2013 interview, Bill Gates harshly questioned why anyone would donate money to build a new wing for a museum rather than spend it on preventing illnesses that can lead to blindness. The Gates Foundation has given no money to the arts, and it's hard to think of many tech philanthropists who've made the arts a major focus of their giving. 

One notable exception is Irwin Jacobs, who made his fortune with Qualcomm, and gave a $100 million to San Diego Symphony. Another is David Bohnett, the tech entrepreneur turned tech investor who's recently emerged as a major donor to the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Related: On Second Thought, I Love the Philharmonic: How David Bohnett Became an Arts Philanthropist

Otherwise, though, few tech philanthropists have given significant money to the arts. (Some wealthy techies, though, are reported to be buying art.) The lack of tech arts giving stands in stark contrast to financiers, many of whom who give heavily to the arts, as we often report. 

Why aren't techies more into the arts? It could be because engineer types just aren't that drawn to culture, and also that many tech donors are still young, and an appreciation of the arts often flourishes later in life. But the impact issue does appear to loom large. As we've said, many tech donors are anxious to back work with a measurable impact. Meanwhile, the arts are seen as soft and intangible by some hard-nosed philanthropists, and not just from the tech world.

In fact, though, there are mountains of evidence suggesting that it's possible to measure the impact of the arts. It may be relatively more difficult compared to other areas, but it's possble. Either way, arts proponents shouldn't let this misconception gain too much traction, especially amongst the tech-millennial crowd.

All this is context for the news that some efforts are underway to raise more money for the arts from the tech community. One example that recently caught our attention is the Silicon Valley Donors Circle. A component fund of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, it has awarded more than $441,000 to emerging arts organizations in the Silicon Valley region since its inception in 2008. Its mission is to "support emerging artists working with underserved populations and expand arts opportunities for the diverse cultural communities of the region."

The Donor Circle, whose corporate sponsors include a number of tech companies including Dell, Microsoft, and Oracle, is now accepting grant applications for 2016. Money is available for theater, music, dance, visual arts, media (e.g. film, digital media), and literary arts (e.g. spoken word, poetry). (Click here for the RPF.) The last round of grants ranged from $3,000 to Pear Theatre to support education programs, to $10,000 to the Tabard Theatre Company's education program partnership with the Boys and Girls Club of Silicon Valley.

So that's something.