Silicon Valley's rainmaker charity turns 10

Silicon Valley Community Foundation's growth spurs it to look beyond Bay Area

What do a rural arts center in Kyrgyzstan, a climate-change think tank in metropolitan Chicago and a science banquet held each year at Moffett Field all have in common?

Money -- specifically, money that flows to each of these initiatives from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF), the Mountain View-based organization that has become a philanthropic rainmaker like none other. Considered the largest organization of its kind, SVCF has become a lifeline for hundreds of nonprofits, NGOs and independent do-gooders, from the Bay Area and across the globe.

The foundation and its staff of about 150 are celebrating the organization's 10-year anniversary, a period that has been marked by huge expansion of the nonprofit's coffers as well as its mission. The organization has grown from controlling $1.4 billion in assets in 2007 to controlling more than $8.2 billion today. With that bulging purse, the charity has also expanded its role zooming out to address more than local needs by taking on a growing list of national and global issues.

"We're at a point that's beyond anyone's wildest dreams of where we would be and what we could accomplish," said Emmett Carson, who has served as the CEO of SVCF since its founding.

The 57-year-old Carson talked last week at the foundation's headquarters on the third floor of a Latham Street office building in Mountain View. Carson is a magnetic figure, always smiling and gesturing to hammer home his point. His animated demeanor is in contrast with his speech pattern, which is slow, deliberate and sometimes lapses into a southern drawl.

In his role, Carson is regularly in contact with the divided economic extremes of Silicon Valley -- the "haves and have-nots." Just outside his office window, Carson can see dozens of homeless families living out of their vehicles on Latham Street. It's a fraction of the estimated 200,000 households living in poverty in Santa Clara County, which is now reported to have the largest income gap in the country. Carson said he routinely presses his team for updates on what they're doing to help the car-dwellers.

But the foundation frequently deals with the whims of the other extreme: the Valley's ultra-wealthy. The nonprofit's growth over the last decade has been buoyed by the largess of wealthy donors giving massive sums. In 2014, when Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan wanted to jump-start an education nonprofit, they directed about $1.6 billion in Facebook stock to the SVCF. WhatsApp founder Jan Koum and GoPro founder Nick Woodman each gave more than $500 million to launch their own charitable funds. For many of these philanthropic funds, it is still being determined how that money will be spent and what issues it will address.

Few would argue that the fundraising prowess of SVCF is closely intertwined to its location in the Bay Area, where more than 60 billionaires reside. For a land where unicorn companies seem to materialize rapidly, a multi-billion-dollar nonprofit coming together in just a decade seems appropriate.

"I don't think this could have been done anywhere else; Silicon Valley is where the money is," said Tom Friel, a former SVCF board member who left in 2015. "There's not many other places where you can raise that level of assets."

But Friel and others say that there's more behind SVCF's large endowment than just its location. Carson credits the success to the nonprofit's commitment to letting donors identify where to direct their charitable giving. These "donor-advised funds," are the programs typically sought by wealthy donors, but they can start as low as $5,000. These funds often serve as a launchpad for SVCF and the benefactors to brainstorm the best way to tailor their philanthropy. It's a "journey" to find out what effective charity means, and what impact each giver want to achieve, Carson said. About 1,050 of these funds have been set up as of 2014, and roughly 160 of them have more than $1 million, according to a 2014 SVCF report.

But that leads to one common criticism of the foundation. Over its short life, the foundation, through it donor-advised funds, has tilted toward giving its grants to organizations outside of the Bay Area, whether in other parts of California or on the other side of the globe.

A report published in October by the consulting firm Open Impact found that in 2013 an average of just 7 percent of the $1.2 billion doled out by Silicon Valley private foundations, including SVCF, went to local charity organizations such as food kitchens, legal-aid groups and youth recreation centers. SVCF distributes more locally than other private foundations, giving Bay Area groups 54 percent of its total grants in 2013, or about $197 million. With business acumen and an eye for an impact, many wealthy donors seek to direct their giving to developing countries, where small sums can reap dramatic improvements, the Open Impact report explained.

Carson said that Silicon Valley is more than just the South Bay and Midpeninsula, but rather it encompasses the entire global supply chain of the tech industry. About one-third of the residents in the area are immigrants, so many of the donors want to help their homelands, and SVCF is willing to accommodate that, he said.

"We don't artificially constrain you with what community has to be," Carson said. "We embrace that. Philanthropy should be a smorgasbord."

But what about the acute problems affecting the South Bay, like the lack of affordable housing? Carson is emphatic that his organization, however well-endowed it may be, can't be assigned with solving the housing crisis head-on. He points out that the housing shortage is a problem compounded by decades of short-sighted policymaking, particularly Gov. Jerry Brown's 2011 decision to dissolve redevelopment agencies, a tool that was frequently used for housing development. For that reason, the solution needs to also be policy-driven, he said.

"We don't have the resources to handle the affordable-housing crisis in our community," Carson said. "We have a mismatch where we have 100,000 people coming in each year, and we have only 10,000 homes being built. Philanthropy can't fix that."

But this is where SVCF and some other philanthropic leaders strongly disagree. Bill Somerville, founder of the Philanthropic Ventures Foundation in Oakland, said that SVCF could be doing much more with its substantial cash reserves to house the homeless and prevent tenant displacement. He is intimately familiar with the area, having previously served as executive director for the Peninsula Community Foundation, one of the two nonprofits that joined in 2007 to form the SVCF. He now calls that merger a "disappointment."

Somerville called the SVCF's practices "scandalous" for amassing so much money from the tech economy, yet directing only a fraction toward the social problems stemming from Silicon Valley's surge. Super-rich donors are happy because they get a substantial tax write-off, but their money often ends up just sitting unused in an account, he said.

"It's marvelous that the SVCF is so huge, but they've become a holding company with no payout required," he said. "They take their fee, the donor gets their tax deduction and everyone's pleased -- but they haven't actually done anything with that money."

SVCF officials take issue with that criticism, pointing out that over the last decade they've doled out $2.3 billion to the Bay Area's nine counties. Housing is one of the foundation's four pillar programs in addition to immigrant services, education and economic security. For housing, Carson and other foundation officials point to "strategic investments" in housing advocacy, a $50 million loan pool for transit-oriented development, and the foundation's participation in a lawsuit against Menlo Park for that city's refusal to accommodate low-income housing.

Carson and SVCF officials pointed to its two main successes, both of which are policy issues. Carson singles out his organization's efforts starting in 2009 to curb abusive payday lending through ordinances in Peninsula cities as well as state legislation. Carson also points out the foundation's role in the exposure of civil rights violations in school math placement programs, which resulted in mostly minority students being forced to repeat algebra in eighth and ninth grades.

Carson says he expects SVCF to further delve into policy issues in the near future as a way to address the emerging problems affecting the Bay Area. But he is careful not to politicize the organization, saying that it must avoid controversy in order to pull people in, even on dicey issues like reforming California's property tax system under Proposition 13.

An optimist at heart, Carson said he is constantly inspired by the willingness of donors who are willing to sacrifice their wealth, and sometimes their reputations, by attempting to improve the world.

"There are people everywhere who are very successful and they don't think once about doing anything for anybody -- they have their fifth house, their 10th car or whatever. And no one ever says a negative word about that decision," he said.

"But the people I work with, they say they want to take their wealth and do some good," Carson said. "I work with them and I see the humbleness and the weight of the burden they feel in wanting to do good."

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