A Tech Leader Doubles Down on Its “Big Bet” on Local Public Schools

 photo: Photo smile/shutterstock

photo: Photo smile/shutterstock

Salesforce has become a notable name in corporate philanthropy, in part for its support of local public schools. The company started working with the San Francisco Unified School District back in 2013 with a $2.7 million grant. Fast forward to 2017, and the company has raised its annual investment to $12.2 million and expanded the partnership to include the Oakland Unified School District. If the steady increase in funds is any indication, Salesforce likes what it’s seeing.

Supporters of traditional school districts, in turn, are likely to be pleased with Salesforce. While the tech sector gives the bulk of its K-12 philanthropy to charter organizations and national nonprofits in the education reform space, Salesforce has put its weight behind the struggling public school systems in its home region. 

A few years ago, the company's chief philanthropy officer, Suzanne DiBianca, told us the story behind Salesforce’s commitment to Bay Area public schools. The partnership emerged after a meeting with the San Francisco mayor and superintendent. DiBianca recalled being struck by the many needs of local schools and the lack of donors stepping forward to lend a hand. Coming out of the meeting, “we decided this was a place to make a big bet,” DiBianca said.

A major focus of Salesforce's support is exposing kids to computer science. In that sense, Salesforce is not that different from many other corporate givers in its desire to align its philanthropy with its long-term self-interest. Investing in the skills of tomorrow's Bay Area workforce can help both students and big employers like Salesforce.  

“Really, we know that computer science knowledge is essential in today’s job market,” said Ebony Frelix, the senior vice president of philanthropy and engagement at Salesforce.org, the firm's charitable arm. “We give students the access, the technology skills, all the things they need to be successful in the future.”

Salesforce’s founder Marc Benioff is a major leader in tech philanthropy and has pushed others in the field to do more. His company pioneered a “1-1-1” philanthropic model, which means donating 1 percent of the company’s earnings, 1 percent of its products and 1 percent of its employees’ time to charitable causes.

The work with San Francisco and Oakland school districts follows the “1-1-1” model. The company is donating $7 million to San Francisco and $5.2 million to Oakland to expand and improve computer science education. The organization is also doubling the number of employee hours from last year, Frelix said.

So far, the results of the past five years are impressive. Only about 25 percent of schools in the country offer computer science classes. Through this partnership, the San Francisco school district became the country’s first school district to have a computer science curriculum for all grades.

The number of girls taking computer science classes has increased 2,000 percent and the number of low-income kids and children of color taking them jumped 6,600 percent since 2012, the first year of the partnership, according to Frelix. In that time, the number of kids that have to retake Algebra I was cut in half, she said.

Notably, under-representation of women and minorities is a major failing of the tech industry. As we've reported, a slew of funders have gotten behind initiatives in recent years to increase the number of women and young people of color who are pursuing STEM education. If you diversify the pipeline, the hope is you’ll diversify the industry—and also create more economic opportunity for an increasingly diverse workforce.

Jeffrey Dean, an early programmer at Google, and his wife Heidi Hopper gave $1 million grants to MIT and UC Berkeley last year to promote diversity in electrical engineering and computer science. Another philanthropic Bay Area couple, Mitchell Kapor and Freada Kapor Klein, have also made diversity in tech one of their signature causes.

In corporate philanthropy, Intel took on diversity in tech after getting mixed up in GamerGate a few years ago. In the past, Apple has also made large donations to organizations that promote women and African Americans. Google has been active in this space, too, while a who's who of other tech companies has supported or partnered with groups such as Girls Who Code and Black Girls Code. 

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Getting back to the new round of Salesforce grants, K-12 computer science education is the main focus of the funding, but not the only one. As part of the grant, all middle school principals will get $100,000 to spend as they see fit. The grants are a carryover from last year and were expanded to include more schools this round.

In the past, the $100,000 grants have allowed principals to pilot programs that are folded into the main initiative if they’re successful. Frelix said principals, who she called “the CEOs of the classroom,” were uniquely positioned to know their students’ needs.

Last year, some principals in Oakland used their grants to hire social workers to provide academic and emotional support to recent immigrant and refugee students, Frelix said. Oakland has a high newcomer population. The effort was so successful it was incorporated into this year’s grant.

As an innovator in corporate philanthropy, Salesforce is worth keeping an eye on. It’s influential in the Bay Area tech scene and is results oriented. “When we look at anything we’re looking at, [we ask] ‘What’s the impact of our investment?’” Frelix said. So far, its big bet on local public schools seems to be paying off nicely. If other K-12 funders aren't paying attention, they should be. 

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