Andrew Wigley
Andrew Wigley

Shifting philanthropic sands in Silicon Valley

Courtesy of Unsplash, Rami Al-Zayat

Where would you find one of the world’s largest and youngest philanthropic foundations? Where else but Silicon Valley. Of course. In step with the rise of some of the biggest commercial enterprises in the world, so too has emerged the Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF). It is the Google or Facebook of the philanthropy sector and it has a strong claim to being the most influential foundation in the world — even more so than the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or the George Soros’ Open Society Foundations.

The story of the SVCF is the story of Silicon Valley. As entrepreneurs in the Bay area began to make their billions, they looked at what ways they could both spend their money and give back to the community that made them wealthy. An opportunity arose to help them channel their philanthropy and the SVCF was established.

SVCF is important for two reasons. First, it disburses huge sums of money on behalf of its donors. According to Forbes, the SVCF has grown by 800% in the past decade and now has assets exceeding $13.5 billion following a wave of generous donations from tycoons in the Valley and beyond.

Second and more importantly, the Foundation represents a wide group of philanthropists — many of whom have international backgrounds or instincts, and made their fortunes at an early stage in their careers.  It is these tech titans who are influencing and informing both the direction and character of US and international philanthropy from their base in California. And the SVCF is playing a key role in re-defining philanthropy.

The poster boy of these prominent donors to SVCF is Mark Zuckerberg. Along with his wife, he is reported to have given an estimated $4bn to philanthropy, a significant amount of which is channeled through SVCF.

The Zuckerbergs are representative of the so-called Next Generation of philanthropists who appear to take a different view towards philanthropy than previous generations. According to the Milken Institute, these younger, bolder philanthropists have a higher tolerance for risk in their philanthropic actions with an appetite for greater social impact. They are likely to be less persuaded by paying for a library that is named after them; more interested in funding community programs that aim to serve as a catalyst for social change.

Universities play an important role in the local community and economy, and SVCF increase in giving over the past five years to higher education suggests that the contribution they make to society is being recognized by the Next Generation — including institutions in Israel.

Israel’s universities are highly effective at fundraising internationally including, it seems, in Silicon Valley. Israel’s top six universities have attracted funding from SVCF between 2015-20. The University of Haifa is the biggest recipient of SVCF university funding in Israel — and by some margin. Over the past six years, it has received nearly $6m in grants, more than the combined sum received by the other five institutions. Moreover, the University of Haifa is the third biggest non-US beneficiary of SVCF university giving after Imperial College and University College London.

Understanding societal shifts and their ramifications are often one of the biggest challenges for all organizations regardless of the sector in which they operate. That the early adopters in philanthropic change should be found in Israel’s network of universities should come as no surprise.

About the Author
I am a public affairs specialist and partner of the Cape Partnership, a London-based advisory firm. I began my career in politics, working in the House of Commons, the House of Lords and subsequently the European Parliament. I am the founder of UniversityPhilanthropy.com which looks at trends in philanthropy and giving to universities.
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