Does the tech industry have a social conscience? It's a fair question, given that its products and services so often destroy jobs or push down wages, that it's avoided billions in taxes by stashing money in offshore havens, and that its swelling presence in the Bay Area has placed enormous pressure on middle- and lower-income households in that region.
But one thing is clear: If this industry does have a moral leader right now, it is Marc Benioff, the founder of Salesforce.com, a pathbreaking company that's made philanthropy the core of its mission from day one, as we often report. Benioff has also lately led efforts to push tech companies in the Bay Area to do more for local communities. In fact, any time you see news of techies doing something good for this region, you can bet that Benioff has a hand it—or was the guy who got the whole thing going, along with Salesforce's long-time point person on philanthropy, Suzanne DiBianca.
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A case in point: we aren't surprised to see Benioff behind a growing collaboration to fight homelessness in San Francisco. This problem, which is worse now than ever before, drew new attention earlier in the year when every news outlet in the region focused on it. Now we're seeing some tech leaders and companies allying with other players to do more on homelessness. They're working with Mayor Ed Lee on a $30 million Heading Home campaign to get around 800 homeless families off the streets.
Benioff has led the way, pledging $10 million in matching funds for the city program. Salesforce separately gave $2 million. Silicon Valley investor Ron Conway, Zendesk’s Mikkel Svane, and Google have also come in. Other donors include Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife Cari Tuna, as well as the Hellman Foundation. Conway put up $1 million, which is another reminder that this legendary angel investor has emerged as an active philanthropist with significant resources to deploy (he's also very close to Benioff). You might not expect to find Moskovitz and Tuna in this mix, since their strategic grantmaking is focused on global and national issues. But clearly, this couple also want to be good citizens in their home region, which is often true for the top philanthropists we watch, however far-ranging their goals may be.
- Ron Conway's Philanthropy: A Tech Angel Investor Spreads His Bets in a New Direction
- How Much Should the Wealthy and Foundations Give in Their Home Regions?
As for the homeless problem in San Francisco, it's a depressing and now-familiar story. The city’s economy is booming more than ever, driving up housing costs in a metropolis with some real geographic and regulatory constraints on new building. Evictions have soared by landlords eager to cash in on higher rents. And the city faces the same struggles as other cities in mounting effective homelessness programs. The average time that families are homeless here is about 14 months, which is unacceptable. This collaboration aims to knock that down to more like 90 days by assisting hundreds of families in the city’s school district with immediate housing and subsidies.
One interesting thing to point out, here, is the tech industry’s gravitational pull toward matching grants. The SF Gives campaign that Benioff led a while back also involved matches, as have some efforts by the Tipping Point Community, an anti-poverty group in the city with close links to the tech sector. Of course, tech companies in the Bay Area understand the power of collaboration, and matching grants fit that worldview.
Tech companies and leaders have received some good press and recognition about their homelessness commitments, which should bring in more backers. That's a good thing. But we can also imagine why this campaign could generate yet more ill feelings. After all, the sums we're talking about here are so puny for an industry that's raking in billions of dollars in profits and also engaging in epic levels of tax avoidance.