Holy Cow, This Community Foundation Is Exploding. Why Is That?

Donor-advised funds were first pioneered by the New York Community Trust in 1931, and have since helped power the phenomenal rise of community foundations across the country, with these entities reporting a record $66 billion in assets in 2013a number that has surely soared higher since then, as legions of new donors turn to DAFs as the easiest way to hit the ground running with their philanthropy and, more broadly, as a growing number of wealthy Americans get focused on philanthropy after decades of record wealth accumulation. 

No community foundation has flourished more than the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, with its $7.3 billion in assets far outstripping any other community foundation. In just the past few years, the SVCF has attracted astonishing sums from Mark Zuckerberg, but also other tech winners, like Nick Woodman and Jan Koum. 

Yet while we often hear of the money going into SVCF, we hear less about the money going out. What's the story on that end? 

Well, the headline is that SVCF's giving is exploding. It recently came out with its final figures for 2015, which are stunning. It made 122,000 grants totaling $823 million in 2015, nearly doubling its previous record of $476 million in 2014 and making it one of the very largest foundations in the United States as measured by giving. Only the Gates Foundation and the Open Society Foundations give away more every year. Meanwhile, no other community foundation even comes close to SVCF's annual grantmaking. The New York Community Trust, for example, made $157.7 million in grants in 2014. 

"The idea that in one year, a group of people can donate $823 million is amazing," said Emmett D. Carson, the foundation’s CEO in a public statement. "It makes me feel we have developed an institution that people trust. They trust us to be good stewards of their resources." Clearly. 

You might think that a foundation with this amount of firepower has been around for generations, but actually it’s only been a decade. SVCF is just approaching its 10-year anniversary actually. Back in January 2007, the foundation was created by merging San Jose's Peninsula Community Foundation and San Mateo's Community Foundation Silicon Valley.

At first glance, SVCF's meteoric rise might look like a simple story. The tech sector is booming, so its foundation of choice is booming, too. 

Certainly, that's true. But another part of the story here is one we tell often at Inside Philanthropy: More and more new donors are choosing not to set up foundations, and instead operating through full-service intermediaries like SVCF. As well, the rise of this place speaks to the greater sense of urgency that many tech donors bring to their giving. They don't want to set up foundations that exist in perpetuity and pay out at a conservative rate. They want to solve big problems now. 

Mark Zuckerberg is a case in point, and given that he and Priscilla Chan operate through SVCF, it's a good bet that some of its jump in annual grantmaking is specifically due to that couple's growing largesse. 

So where's that blizzard of SVCF grants been going lately?

It's a question worth asking because this funder has such an influential presence in the Bay Area. That said, it's always hard to generalize about the grantmaking of community foundations, since these places host the giving of so many donors and also have both their own funding programs. You can't talk about what a community foundation "is doing" the way you can with other foundations. 

But SVCF definitely does have its own distinctive grantmaking priorities. Around this time last year, we published a blog titled “Where SVCF’s Local Support has been Going,” in which we noted that top grantmaking focuses were economic security, English for immigrants, and out-of-classroom education. And more recently, we highlighted the Silicon Valley Community Foundation’s increased giving for math and English education, as well as predatory lending prevention.

Lots of other stuff is going on, too. You can read more about SVCF’s 2015 accomplishments in the February 11, 2016 press release, including the California Mathematics Placement Act, the Big Lift, and Silicon Valley Gives.