While a federal judge may have halted President Donald Trump’s controversial executive orders banning refugees and people from seven majority-Muslim nations, the action failed to stop a growing groundswell of anger from Silicon Valley.
That backlash has drawn lots of media attention, but less noticed is how tech companies and their leaders are responding with philanthropic giving.
As Inside Philanthropy previously reported, the ride-sharing app Lyft was the first to step forward, pledging $1 million to the ACLU over the next four years. In addition, Instacart founder Apoorva Mehta announced in a series of Twitter posts that his company would be donating $100,000 to the ACLU as well.
“As an immigrant who grew up in one of the countries that was banned, I'm sad and angry with what is happening,” he said.
Twitter and its employees have also responded. Nearly a thousand Twitter employees pledged over a half-million dollars to the ACLU, which was then matched by CEO Jack Dorsey and executive chairman Omid Kordestani—for a total of $1.59 million.
According to TechCrunch, a host of other tech executives have also made individual donations to the ACLU, including from companies such as Stripe, Nest, Intercom, Facebook and Sequoia Capital.
But the biggest move so far has been by Google, which confirmed last week that it would dedicate $4 million toward efforts to fight the ban and cope with its fallout.
The gift came in the form of a crisis campaign fund toward which Google would match employee donations up to $2 million for gifts to the American Civil Liberties Union, Immigrant Legal Resource Center, International Rescue Committee and the U.N. Refugee Agency. Media reports suggested it was the largest such fund in the company’s history.
There are both personal and business dimensions to Google's giving, here. The company co-founder, Sergey Brin, was born to a Jewish family in Russia that fled to the U.S. in 1979 from Soviet anti-semitism. Brin was among the thousands of protesters at San Francisco International Airport, where he told reporters, “I'm here because I'm a refugee."
Meanwhile, Google, like many of Silicon Valley’s sharpest players, often relies heavily on foreign talent to maintain its competitive advantage, a point it reiterated in a statement accompanying the announcement of the fund.
"We’re concerned about the impact of this order and any proposals that could impose restrictions on Googlers and their families, or that could create barriers to bringing great talent to the U.S.," said Google. "We'll continue to make our views on these issues known to leaders in Washington and elsewhere."
We've written extensively about the corporate philanthropy of Google, as well as the individual giving by Brin, co-founder Larry Page and Alphabet Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt. Both Brin and Page have built up foundations with endowments of over a billion dollars, while Schmidt and his wife Wendy have emerged as active philanthropists in the areas of science and the environment.
So far, though, the giving by Google and its high command has been relatively safe. Brin's biggest causes have been Parkinson's and local anti-poverty efforts. Page drew attention a while back for his major give to help contain Ebola. Google's corporate giving has also been uncontroversial.
Can we now expect a sharper edge in Google-related philanthropy as the tech company and its billionaire leaders find themselves in an adversarial stance against the Trump administration?
That's a good question, and given how easy it is for major donors to cover their tracks using donor-advised funds, we'll probably never know the answer. (Page's foundation has given millions to donor-advised funds over the years for who knows what.)
As we've discussed before, the biggest tech companies run major risks if they are seen as partisan or biased. These companies have often likened themselves in importance to utilities, and the public has a right to expect political neutrality from such critical players. Which means the chieftains at Google, Facebook, and some other giants have to walk a fine line, here.
On the other hand, timely philanthropic gifts can offer a PR boon, as Lyft's give to the ACLU showed. And Google's response to the immigrant ban is also likely to strengthen brand loyalty. "It’s a use of marketing dollars, rather than an out-and-out ad spend,” said Peter Rajsingh, a partner at Castellar Partners LLC who sits on the boards of multiple charities, speaking to Inside Philanthropy. “Management of Google must believe that the publicity they’re getting, in the final analysis, is going to be positive.”
Even among companies who haven’t given yet, there has been near-unanimous criticism of Trump's executive orders. On Sunday evening, a coalition of the industry's biggest players including Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft filed an amicus brief opposing the travel ban to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.
The jockeying speaks to a desire to get ahead of the curve of public opinion. “We might even slot this within the broader ambit of virtue signaling,” said Rajsingh.
Still, while flash-in-the-pan activism can be as easy as cutting a check or dumping a bucket of ice water on your head, it remains to be seen whether Silicon Valley will stick with real policy activism over the long hall.