Greater Good Blog

Bay Area Tech Philanthropy: Harnessing the “Next-Tech” Wave

Stephanie Fuerstner Gillis

I had the pleasure of participating in a live local radio show the other week with colleagues from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and 21/64. The topic was “Bay Area Philanthropy,” but the host really wanted to talk about the latest generation of young millionaires being minted by Silicon Valley. Among the questions on the host’s mind: how are younger, next-generation donors similar to or different from prior generations in their philanthropy, and is the Bay Area social economy reaping any benefits from the many millionaires it is producing? The question I walked away with was, how can we as a community begin now to engage the Bay Area’s latest generation of young millionaires in our community and in philanthropy? As a philanthropy professional who lived in San Francisco during the dot-com boom of the late 1990s and still lives here today, I see opportunities for those who work in our sector to be more proactive this time around.

Throughout the radio show, I found myself wanting to draw a distinction between the traits of next-gen philanthropists and the characteristics of what I think of as “Bay Area tech philanthropy,” the unique style of giving practiced by tech entrepreneurs nurtured by Silicon Valley. What we are seeing here now is the birth of donors (or future donors) with the generational personalities of millennials who are also deeply influenced by Silicon Valley start-up culture. Perhaps we should anoint them “next-techs.” As we think about the future of the Bay Area and how to nurture connections that incent those who work here to invest in our community, here are some things we might think about.

As donors, millennials are:

  • Values driven
  • Extremely well networked
  • Hungry to be taken seriously, and eager to contribute “time, talent, treasure, and ties” to the organizations they support
  • Eager to make a visible difference in the causes they support

As donors, tech entrepreneurs:

  • Want to apply what they have learned from their work lives to their giving
  • Thrive on experimentation, learning, and risk
  • Are endowed with what researchers at Boston College call “hyperagency”—a disposition toward effectiveness and a deep faith in the power of the individual to have an impact

Though there are some active donors who are hybrids of these two donor “personalities” (think Mark Zuckerberg), it’s too early to know how this generation’s involvement in the Bay Area and local philanthropy will play out. One thing that bodes well is that because of how these donors like to give (getting involved and connecting personally), they are likely to want to give where they live. However, we also know that in many cases these tech entrepreneurs did not grow up in the Bay Area and have not yet established deep roots. Because of the nature of their businesses, which can “operate in the cloud,” their work doesn’t tend to generate deep connections to the local community. They are also still mostly single, recently married, or have young children, so aren’t yet fully accessing the networks of schools and community life. And they are very busy, hard working, and not yet focusing their energies on philanthropy.

Our challenge is to offer opportunities that meet them where they are in their lives and help them connect with outlets for their passions, generosity, and gratitude. How can we as a community activate this generation of donors? What can we be doing now to deepen their connections to the Bay Area and inspire them to focus here?

We might start by better capturing the lessons learned by the two prior generations of technology entrepreneurs now engaged in philanthropy. We still have opportunities to tap the wisdom of the generation of Gordon Moore and others who birthed Silicon Valley. We also have the knowledge generated by the fairly recent wave of donors who emerged from the dot-com era (Jeff Skoll, Marc Benioff, the Omidyars, those involved in Social Venture Partners, and many more), and the benefits of a sector that’s learned from that experience. This is not a case of needing to learn from history via secondary research. There are active, highly engaged donors who can serve as mentors and resources to those about to follow in their footsteps. There also now exists a much more robust infrastructure to support young, emerging donors and nurture their growth as philanthropists. Finally, we have younger generations of long-standing philanthropic families in the Bay Area and could create opportunities for those next-gen family members to connect with young next-tech donors to share ideas and knowledge.

One great example of a local effort is the Awesome Foundation. The San Francisco chapter is a giving circle that makes gifts of up to $1,000 to fund what they call “highly focused Bay Area projects that start a conversation.” These are the types of models that build social capital and civic engagement, and connect with young donors in a way that fits into their lives now.

It’s an exciting time and the Bay Area is again generating significant wealth. We have a lot to learn about how we might begin to plant seeds with this generation of tech entrepreneurs that over time could grow into community resources. We should be having conversations now about how to strengthen their connections to our community. I’d love to hear about other innovative ways organizations are reaching into these networks to benefit the Bay Area now and in the future.

Stephanie Fuerstner-Gillis leads Arabella’s Foundation Management line of business and has an extensive background in evaluation, program strategy, and family philanthropy.

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