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Silicon Valley philanthropy: Give it away while you're young

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Manish Swarup/AP

A street child looks out from his classroom during studies conducted by the Salaam Baalak Trust at the New Delhi railway station in September 2004. Salaam Baalak Trust is an Indian charity for homeless children.

Silicon Valley naturally believes that it can change the world. This is at times a pathetic delusion, but also equally a chance for tech startup country to show off what it's got. Consider the case of Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, wife of Mark Andreesen, who co-founded Netscape and is now a venture capitalist. This is from the New York Times Bits blog:

Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen is on a mission.

[She] thinks tech titans should be more philanthropic. And she is encouraging the youngest billionaires to give away their money now, not wait until after they retire or die.

But her mission extends beyond the tech world. She wants to expand the definition of the philanthropist, to include people who give time or expertise, not just money. She also argues that philanthropy should be more professional, by borrowing strategies like research and evaluation from Silicon Valley’s for-profit businesses. These strategies include using technology to make things more efficient, inventing new ways to do business and financing nimble upstarts.

More power to her, but there are two slightly alarming things to consider here:

  1. the notion that philanthropy is the exclusive province of the made-it wealthy person, and that those who administer to the distribution of this wealth are hapless amateurs
  2. the idea that philanthropic conduct is something your earn, rather than something you can easily practice throughout your life, when rich and not-so-rich

Arrillaga-Andreessen is clearly looking to leverage Silicon Valley and what it does well to create more philanthropic bang for the buck. Her milieu understands very well the value of scale, so her strategy makes sense. 

However, what might be ultimately more beneficial is if, rather than focusing on the Silicon Valley elite, she fully develops the concept of remaking philanthropy as an activity that can be practiced in a technologically enhanced aggregate. Think about: tech allows us to combine forces in many ways, comparing notes on restaurants and gadgets — so how about enabling the same thing for philanthropy?

Because let's face it: How hard should it be to convince a young Silicon Valley millionaire to give money away? Not very, if the predictable means of persuasion and flattery are deployed. Imagine, on the other hand, that you create well-capitalized and technologically robust platforms for collective giving? A kind of philanthropic Kiva. 

It's already a reality. Microphilanthropy is a growing area of charity, as this USA Today piece reveals. The movement is taking advantage of a sort of undercurrent of craving for peer-to-peer philanthropic relationships. 

A larger question for both everyday givers and Arrillaga-Andreessen's Valley high-fliers is whether they'll truly man up and donate money at major levels. Just before the holidays in 2006, Peter Singer, a philosopher and ethicist, wrote a widely cited article for the New York Times in which her proposed that anyone who could comfortably give to alleviate the most significant — and solvable — problems of world poverty should part with 10-33 percent of their income (whether they get it from working or from other sources). 

This would be on an ongoing basis. Effectively, a massive redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor, in order to achieve the a set of United Nations Millennium Development Goals by 2015, including reducing by half the proportion of the world’s people in extreme poverty; reducing by half the proportion of people who suffer from hunger; and reducing by two-thirds the mortality rate among children under 5.

If Silicon Valley can turbocharge these efforts and unleash a wave of giving that will turn "reduce" into "eliminate," then Arrillaga-Andreessen's project will be well worth the effort.

Follow Matthew DeBord and the DeBord Report on Twitter.

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