May 2, 2019

At the Intersection of Philanthropy and Tech (Part II): What philanthropy can teach the tech sector

This is the second blog in a series recapping “At The Intersection of Philanthropy and Tech,” a breakout session I presented last July during ACT-W Portland — an annual conference for women in tech hosted by our city's local chapter of ChickTech — that centered on what the philanthropic and tech sectors can learn from each other and where I think they will succeed by working together. The first blog detailed what the tech sector is doing well. In this one, I’ll outline what philanthropy has to offer tech. The most obvious thing that the philanthropic sector can teach the tech sector is how to deploy financial assets, our raison d’être. The philanthropic sector has made great strides in the areas of financial investments, social change and planning for long-term impact, and it is our charge as philanthropists to share these insights.

The philanthropic sector, or as it’s sometimes called “organized philanthropy,” came into its own half a century ago as a side effect of Congress’ decision to regulate charitable giving and track the flow of money.1 Since that time, the sector has come to encompass grantmaking institutions, including private, independent, family, corporate and community foundations; public charities, corporate giving programs, tribal governments, government funders, and operating foundations; infrastructure organizations, including regional associations, issue-based and affinity-based national groups, and international associations; and consultancies and companies providing everything from DEI training to legal advising to grants management software. Billions of dollars move through this sector every year, and it takes expertise to continuously improve on established practices.

Oregon’s tech sector has grown steadily in the last decade, plateauing last year at about 11 percent of Oregon’s jobs.2 Many high-tech corporations headquartered in Oregon have been involved in grantmaking for some time, including Intel, Nike, Adidas, Columbia Sportswear and (recently) New Relic. Many others are supporting nonprofits but haven’t established a formal vehicle for this work. In my opinion it is both desirable and necessary that they do, especially around issues that are directly caused by the movement of a technically skilled workforce into the state. For example, affordable housing is a major issue in our state, and part of the problem is that we have such a hot job sector, especially among high-paying tech jobs, that the housing supply cannot keep up with the demand. As Oregon’s lower-income population is displaced, the tech industry has an opportunity to step up as funders to invest in developing a homegrown workforce and to mitigate their own impact on the people being pushed out.

The technical aspects of grantmaking vary depending on the type of grantmaking entity, and a company’s leaders would need to consider whether an independent foundation, corporate foundation or corporate giving program best suits their vision. These are all questions no one should have to solve alone. Fortunately, the philanthropic sector is primed to educate tech companies on how to give money away, from legal and compliance issues to evaluation and reporting best practices to collaboration with other funders. The other part of “how to give money away” is the relationship piece. Being in relationships with nonprofits over a period of time means foundations like Meyer have access to real expertise in the form of constituent voice.

There are many causes that sound good to the untrained ear, but nonprofit professionals and their customers — who are engaged in social change all day every day — know what is effective and what isn’t. To that end, I believe that tech companies that want to create social change through giving will need to cultivate relationships within the social sector. There are numerous entry points, especially in the Portland area. One example is the CTE-STEM Funder Round Table, a group that meets quarterly to discuss shared interests in funding career-technical and STEM education. I believe that when they come to the table, they will find themselves more than welcomed by our philanthropic community.

Story Time

Full disclosure: One of the reasons I wanted to speak at ACT-W and share my thoughts on this topic is that I was annoyed with Amazon-founder Jeff Bezos. In 2017, Bezos announced on Twitter that he wanted to do something big with his money and asked for suggestions. My suggestion to him then (which was not unique) was to get connected to a regional or issue-based association of grantmakers. At the time, I worked for one such organization and knew that it was a basic but crucial first step to anyone wanting to establish a formal giving program. Ignoring all the feedback he solicited, Bezos decided the best use of his money was not to help with any real problems the world currently has but to solve imaginary problems (and possibly enrich himself further while doing it). The intense criticism that followed led to Amazon announcing in October 2018 that it would raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour and join the fight for 15. In a statement reported by the Washington Post, Bezos said “We listened to our critics, thought hard about what we wanted to do and decided we want to lead.”

He didn’t decide to “lead” on this issue because it was the right thing to do; just just eight days before the announcement, Amazon was handing out 25-cent “damage control” raises. He certainly didn’t commit to rebuilding Puerto Rico or reuniting families detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or any of the great things that a pile of money like his could do. However, this story demonstrates the importance of sincere, intentional and strategic philanthropy that listens to constituent voice and focuses on the social return on investment of all that it does.

If you want to change the world, it’s not enough to throw money around. Your entire body of work — from start to finish — can be treated as an investment in the kind of world you hope to create. Meyer’s own investment team has been at the forefront of creating investment strategies and vehicles that place our assets in service to our mission. This isn’t easy work and it doesn’t happen overnight, but that should not deter anyone from doing it. Anyone can decide to lead, even before the critiques start coming. Tech companies have additional opportunities to create positive social ROI as well, in their core market offerings.

There are no bug fixes in social change philanthropy

There is such a thing as negative social ROI. Michelle Alexander detailed the implicit racism that is baked into “e-carceration” software in “The Newest Jim Crow.” Tech Workers Coalition works to stop the use of the tech labor force to support injustices such as the creation of software for ICE’s unconstitutional activities. Even the fact that the majority of apps that get funded and developed reflect the needs and desires of their mostly white creators is a form of negative social ROI. Some of these negative returns can’t be fixed. The court system is slower by design than artificial intelligence, but if AI puts more people of color in jail and their only recourse is a slow system we are taking years away from a human life that can never be replaced.

Philanthropy is often criticized for being too slow, but I believe slow can be good — especially if the goal is to make time to fully consider the implications of what we create. The last thing any tech company should do is rush into a grantmaking program with no clear idea of their goals, the environment they’re operating in or the people who inhabit it. As much as the philanthropic sector can learn from tech about being less risk-averse, it can also teach.

Some of the insights will be learning from philanthropy’s mistakes. The history of our sector is problematic, but we continue to work steadily toward social justice.

Come and learn with us.

Rhiannon
 

Notes


  1. The Foundation Center was established in 1956 to document charitable gifts in response to the pressures of McCarthyism and fears that foundations were somehow funding communism. Before this, there were foundations, but they each functioned as if in a vacuum. Click here for a more complete synopsis. Return to top ↩

  2. Rogoway, Mike. “Oregon’s tech industry appears to have plateaued,” The Oregonian, May 3, 2018. Return to top ↩