Pledge 1% On the Rise: Another Tech Firm Makes Its Grantmaking Debut

 nethope, which has helped refugees access technology, is okta's first grantee. photo:  Panayotis Tzamaros/shutterstock

nethope, which has helped refugees access technology, is okta's first grantee. photo:  Panayotis Tzamaros/shutterstock

When Salesforce founder Marc Benioff pledged to donate 1 percent of equity, 1 percent of product and 1 percent of employee time in 1999, tech philanthropy looked very different than it does now. Back then, there was far more compartmentalization between doing well and doing good. The standard approach to philanthropy by business leaders involved making a whole bunch of money and then distributing it, possibly after retirement, through a big private foundation. Gates is the operative example.

But Benioff’s model, which has been dubbed 1+1+1, envisions active philanthropy as a key part of a tech business from the start. That mindset is more in line with the thinking of younger tech winners like those who made their fortunes through Google and Facebook. Millennial entrepreneurs, it's been widely noted, don't tend to put their varied interests—business and philanthropic—into separate boxes. They're more likely to blend them together.  

As we’ve written before, the next wave of tech philanthropy may look a lot like Benioff’s Salesforce model, with a greater emphasis on spreading philanthropic norms and a “culture of giving” through the startup world, and not just among founders, CEOs and ultra-wealthy investors. The Pledge 1% movement, which has attracted over 1,500 tech companies, is looking to carry Benioff’s 1+1+1 theme throughout the industry.

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Okta, Inc. took the pledge last fall. At that time, the cloud-based application integration company also rolled out Okta for Good, its corporate responsibility arm, and offered IT products for free to a number of nonprofits. Okta’s been around since 2009, so it’s not exactly brand new. But the official Pledge 1% campaign, now housed at Tides Foundation, only dates to 2014. Okta’s philanthropic commitment is still an early one, considering fact that the company just had its IPO this April.

Following a successful IPO, Okta is now debuting the Okta for Good Fund. According to Okta for Good’s executive director, Erin Baudo Felter, Okta’s philanthropy will be aligned closely with its overall mission. Okta’s products securely integrate the cloud-based apps organizations use, and as Felter told me, the “theme of connecting people in tech is what we’ve been focusing on since our inception.”

NetHope, the Okta for Good Fund’s first grantee, is all about connecting people through tech. With a membership of over 40 NGOs operating internationally, NetHope’s goal is to boost connectivity and information sharing in response to humanitarian and health crises. On its face, tech company rhetoric about the power of internet access in rural Africa can seem self-serving. But NetHope also addresses a real challenge: setting up the lines of communication necessary to make aid resources count on the ground. 

With supporters like Google, Microsoft, Cisco, the Paul Allen Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation, NetHope has been a hit among tech philanthropists, and others besides. It also speaks to the broader hope of many companies who’ve taken the pledge: to give in multiple ways that cross-pollinate with each other. 

At NetHope, Okta is joining Microsoft as a founding partner of the Center for the Digital Nonprofit, an initiative that builds on NetHope’s experience “examining and building a deep understanding of how global humanitarian nonprofits are engaging with technology,” as NetHope CEO Lauren Woodman puts it.

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Back at Okta for Good, the game plan is to continue building out the company’s 1+1+1 giving. Throughout our conversation, Felter made it clear that Okta wants to spread that “culture of giving” ethos that characterizes Pledge 1% philanthropy. Through an enhanced employee impact program, she wants to give Okta employees a better sense of how to think about social impact in their own lives, as well as through their work at Okta.

Felter’s also pretty sanguine about tech philanthropy in general. “My peers and I are seeing this next wave of companies embed philanthropy in their work earlier. We’re setting this up early and making significant decisions about what kind of structures to put in place.” She also said, “With its three distinct buckets, [Pledge 1%] is a great framework for leaders of companies who don’t have experience with social responsibility work.”

Felter herself comes to Okta for Good with previous stints in CSR at Zynga, Yahoo and Warner Bros. Okta is a newer company, and she sees its philanthropic profile as somewhat different from that of her previous employers. “A lot of what we want to do right now is learning and listening,” Felter said.

The partnership between Pledge 1% and Tides has been a big part of that learning process. Of Tides, Felter said, “We appreciate that they have a focus on issues; they’re not agnostic. We also need to soak up as much knowledge and learn as much as possible. Tides is the best partner to help us learn and take into account all sides. Our Tides advisor helps us see things from the perspective of the community or the nonprofits.”

The role of Tides in scaling Pledge 1% is noteworthy since many people tend to think of the Silicon Community Foundation as the mothership of tech philanthropy. Clearly, though, Tides—another top Bay Area funding intermediary, but one with a more progressive worldview—is getting a piece of this growing action, too.