The Latest Tech Player to Step Up Big (and Early) for Philanthropy: Snapchat

Despite being the youngest billionaire on Earth—no mean accomplishment—Snapchat’s Evan Spiegel is often compared unfavorably to fellow tech titan Mark Zuckerberg. Though they have similarities—both dropped out of college to start their empires and both rejected acquisition offers from more established companies—Zuckerberg’s reclusive austerity doesn’t make headlines like Spiegel’s splashy lifestyle and fondness for expensive cars. His leaked college emails also didn’t help.

When it comes to philanthropy, though, Zuckerberg and Spiegel appear to be on the same page.

Last week, Spiegel and Snapchat co-founder Bobby Murphy announced the creation of the Snap Foundation, and by the looks of things, it’s going to have some serious money behind it. According to reports, Spiegel and Murphy are planning to donate 13 million Class A shares of Snapchat stock to the foundation over the next 15 to 20 years. With its last private valuation at $25 billion, it could mean hundreds of millions of dollars for the initiative when the company goes public.

The donations are set to benefit primarily youth, education and nonprofit arts programs. The moves could potentially position the company and the millennial billionaires it minted as major players in tech philanthropy in coming years.

It's also another indication that today's young tech wealth elite are not waiting until someday down the road to get started on philanthropy. Zuckerberg set the new pace back in 2010, when he made his first major give—$100 million to improve Newark's schools—before Facebook even went public. And there have been plenty of examples since then of techies striking it rich and then immediately engaging in giving: Like when Jan Koum set aside over a half-billion dollars for philanthropy after selling WhatsApp to Facebook, or when Nick Woodson set up a fund of roughly equal size after his big score with GoPro. 

Last year, the three founders of Airbnb all joined the Giving Pledge, promising to donate half their net worth to philanthropy. Will Spiegel and Murphy also join the pledge? We wouldn't be surprised, given how deeply a belief in giving seems to have penetrated the world of tech elites lately. 

It's worth mentioning that the philanthropic arm of Salesforce, founded by Marc Benioff, has been an important player in pushing the tech world to step up and give big. It catalyzed the Pledge 1% campaign, which seeks to get early-stage companies to commit to donating 1 percent of equity, employee time and product to philanthropy—the groundbreaking 1+1+1 model that others have followed. Dozens of companies have taken the pledge, and while Snapchat is not among them, it's clearly been thinking along similar lines. 

Contrary to popular belief, Snapchat's move to put aside shares is not the company’s first foray into giving. Snapchat, which is based in Los Angeles, has quietly maintained a years-long relationship with the St. Joseph Center, a 40-year-old Venice homeless services center. 

“It was about three years ago when they reached out to us and expressed an interest in helping,” VaLecia Adams Kellum, president and CEO of St. Joseph Center, told Inside Philanthropy. “They’ve just been phenomenal.” 

According to Kellum, St. Joseph’s was looking for a sustaining partner to fund “Codetalk,” one of the center’s signature programs, which provides young women with technology-based vocational training. The initial year of inception was paid for by members of the billionaire Resnick family; subsequent funding, however, needed to come from elsewhere.

“[Snapchat] agreed to fund it for the second, and now, third year,” said Kellum. “I certainly hope it’s a permanent partnership.” Unlike many others, who dump money and run to the next tax write-off, Snapchat has also invested deeply in many of St. Joseph’s boots-on-the-ground programs and is even developing an internship around Codetalk. A Snapchat executive sits on their board. 

“It is clearly in the culture of the agency,” said Kellum.

Culture, perhaps. But the donations from Snapchat and other tech giants also reflect a tacit concession that many of the social ills organizations like St. Joseph are trying to solve are exacerbated by the very companies flooding them with funding.

As we've reported, Bay Area tech companies have engaged in growing local giving to address some of the economic pressures and disparities that have arisen in that region as the tech industry has boomed. 

Of course, there are natural limitations to what even the most altruistic billionaire can achieve with philanthropy. Particularly around homelessness, displacement and poverty, Silicon Valley titans must work with local communities and municipal governments if the seeds of their generosity are ever to bear fruit. It's good to see Snapchat—a leader in L.A.'s thriving "Silicon Beach" scene—now stepping up in an even bigger way.