What a Dive into Saving the Oceans Tells Us About a Top Tech Philanthropist

Nowadays, it seems you haven’t truly arrived as a mega-philanthropist until you make a big oceans grant. That moment has come for Marc and Lynne Benioff, but with a characteristically unique take. 

Ocean protection is a consistently hot subject among big givers in this new Gilded Age, with a steady stream of top donors making massive gifts or starting new marine programs. We’ve watched as people like Jim and Marilyn Simons, Hansjorg Wyss, Ray Dalio, Paul Allen and Mike Bloomberg followed the leads of old school tech money funders like Moore and Packard in giving to oceans causes. 

At times, we've even wondered whether there's some secret memo floating around, calling on the super-rich to save the seas.


So it wasn’t too surprising to hear that Marc and Lynne Benioff have chosen oceans as their next big cause. The couple, with wealth derived from Marc Benioff’s wildly successful Salesforce cloud computing firm, just announced more than $10 million in support for UC Santa Barbara to establish a Benioff Ocean Initiative (BOI). 

Because this couple does things a little differently when it comes to philanthropy, it’s not surprising that BOI has a couple twists—incorporating public input to determine priorities, and putting a strong emphasis on academics being advocates and enacting solutions instead of just studying the problems.

The Benioffs have become some of the most notable and influential Silicon Valley donors in a growing pool of relatively young billionaires trying to find their ways in philanthropy. For one, Marc Benioff is an advocate of a pay-as-you-go approach known as the 1-1-1 model, which calls for giving and employee volunteerism proportionate to company size. Following that model, Salesforce’s philanthropic arm has been shaking up corporate giving with some big funding for such a young company. Like others from the tech world, the couple are big proponents of giving now and not putting off philanthropy until later in life.  


The Benioffs have also embraced and encouraged others to embrace serving the Bay Area community, where local inequities have soared in tandem with tech wealth. Similarly, while many big education donors love the free market approach of the charter school movement, Salesforce is supporting public schools in San Francisco. The Benioffs’ other big personal cause is local hospitals, which they’ve supported with two $100 million grants, as well as additional support. 

You can see threads of their populist brand of philanthropy in the new oceans initiative. For one, BOI at this point is almost entirely agnostic about which oceans issues it will take on, contrasting with very strategically specific initiatives at places like the Simons and Moore foundations. The center cites problems like climate change-related acidification, overfishing and plastic pollution. But it has a unique mechanism that invites the public to guide its direction, asking ordinary folks to suggest issues to prioritize on the website

From there, researchers headquartered at UCSB, in collaboration with several universities, will study the issues, and eventually assemble to offer up tactics to fix them. Each fix will have $1 million in support. 

The initiative is putting a big focus on solutions, trying to send a signal to academia that they “must do more than studiously write up the obituary for the oceans,” says Douglas McCauley, the marine biologist leading the effort. He likens the initiative to a university hospital for oceans.

McCauley himself is kind of a maverick in his field, gaining attention for framing research in a way that invites public engagement, and describing himself once as a “garage band science communicator.”

One other thing to note about the Benioffs’ entry into oceans philanthropy—they tend to do things big. If their support for other causes is any indicator, look for a lot more funding to come this way.

Almost needless to say, the Benioffs have joined the Giving Pledge, promising to dedicate the "majority" of their wealth to philanthropy. That fortune now stands at $3.8 billion, so at some point we'll be looking at far greater Benioff giving than anything we've seen yet. 

Interestingly, the Benioff's Giving Pledge letter said nothing about saving the oceans. Clearly, it was written before they got the secret memo.