Will the Tech Industry Ever Learn Philanthropy

on December 10, 2014

In 2012, Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook, bought The New Republic, an almost century old magazine of liberal politics and literature. The magazine has not be profitable for many years and Hughes, though in his 20s, was seen as one in a string of wealthy investors who were prepared to keep the magazine afloat.

The view was false. On Dec. 3, Hughes fired top editors Franklin Foer and Leon Wieseltier, moved the office from Washington to New York, and reduced the publication to 10 issues per year with an online offering of unknown style and content. Most of the rest of the staff quit and the small but influential audience immediately viewed the venerable magazine as dead.

Originally most observers, both in tech and the TNR audience, thought Hughes had become the latest executive to use his fortune to invest in a charity or charitable business, since no one expected this deal was likely to make a profit. It’s not clear whether Hughes simply got tired of a money losing proposition or had a plan all along to turn the magazine into something else. But it again raised the question of what sort of charitable deeds we should expected from rich, successful tech execs. (You can try to figure our Hughes’ thinking from a rather confusing article he wrote for The Washington Post.)

Top tech givers

The Chronicle of Philanthropy recently published the top 50 U.S. financial givers in 2013. Facebook founder Mark Zuckenberg was by far the largest donor. Pierre Omidyar, funder of eBay, was seventh overall and Sergey Brin and Anne Wojcicki of Google, still married although separated, ranked ninth. Lawrence Ellison of Oracle was 26th. The other two of the top 50, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen (11) and James H. Clark (36), co-founder of both Silicon Graphics and Netscape, are big donors but not currently active in tech companies.

(One important piece of information. The data reported includes only gifts actually made last year. So Bill Gates doesn’t make the list because the family earlier gave a staggering fortune to the Bill and  Melinda Gates Foundation, which now makes the actual gifts. Other tech execs may be missing because of large transfers to foundations in the past.)

It’s easy to come up with a list of missing contributors. Steve Jobs is the most obvious one. A 2011 New York Times column by Andrew Ross Sorkin went through the details of  Job’s relatively minimal contributions. The only big gift revealed after his death was a $50 million donation to Stanford University Hospital. While that’s a big chunk, it was very tiny part of his wealth. Steve Ballmer and his wife Connie recent made funded donations of 12 professors, probably around $60 million worth, to Harvard and $50 million to Connie Ballmer’s college, Oregon. But that’s not a high percentage of the $5.3 billion in Microsoft compensation he received in 2010-13.

I found it fairly rare that rich text executives were major donors. It’s not clear the generous Sergey Brin has made much of an impression on Eric Schmidt or Larry Page. Schmidt has been an active political donor but much less so in philanthropy. Page, at a recent TED conference, said in an interview with Charlie Rose it might be better to give his money to Elon Musk’s space industry than to a charity.

One thing that makes the role of rich executives as contributor is that they are often very young. Very few, if any, are currently being inspired by Zuckerberg to become philanthropists at such a tender age. It’s hard to compare their behavior to past tycoon donors such as Andrew Carnegie or John D. Rockefeller who did not accumulate fortunes until a relatively advanced age. Perhaps young, rich executives will become more like today’s elderly founders such as Gordon Moore of Intel or Irving Jacobs of Qualcom.

Let’s hope so. More than most countries, the United States expects rich folks to support social needs rather than steep taxing that is used to let the government give the money away. We can argue about how good giving is to fund society, but it’s the American tradition.