The “New Philanthropists”

Over the last decade, it seems that one of technology’s major influences on the philanthropic sector has been the infusion of ideas and dollars from Silicon Valley. 

Historically, American tycoons like Carnegie, Ford, Mellon and Rockefeller spent most of their lifetimes accumulating wealth and then began pursuing major philanthropic activities and establishing their foundations later in life (or after their deaths) as a way to give back to society and round out their legacies.  

In more recent decades, the accumulation of wealth for Silicon Valley visionaries has happened much earlier in life and at a much larger scale. Many of them are now looking at how they can launch or invest in ventures that will improve the world and make it a more equitable place – in their lifetimes. 

But even beyond the new wealth generated by Silicon Valley, young people in their 20s and 30s who have yet to make millions are finding creative ways to apply technology online and empower individuals to become engaged philanthropists and agents for social change. 

The influence of these two types of “new philanthropists” has been chronicled by major media outlets over the last year or two, including the Economist (“The Business of Giving“), Financial Times (“A New Generation Enters the Business of Doing Good“), New York Times (“What’s Wrong with Profit?“) and the Wall Street Journal. 

Below is a round-up of familiar examples that seem to portend a technology-fueled revolution (or evolution?) in philanthropy – a revolution being fueled not only by the new wealth being generated, but also by a resurgence of ideals that hinge on community, accountability and responsibility for the world we inhabit.  

With terms like philanthrocapitalism and social entrepreneurship being coined to describe this still-evolving phenomenon, it is clear that the face and mindset of philanthropy is changing in significant ways.  

What is unclear to me is what it means for the nonprofit organizations and foundations rooted in the more traditional mindset of philanthropy in the United States… and that are bound not only by the IRS codes and regulations that govern their existence, but also by the expectations for how they function within society.  

Is there room for both the old guard and the new? Will the old adapt to the ways of the new? Or will one replace the other?  

Silicon Valley Philanthropists – the philanthropic arm of Google, which was co-founded by Sergey Brin and Larry Page (both in their mid-30s with a combined net worth of roughly $37 billion) – “aspires to use the power of information and technology to address the global challenges of our age: climate change, poverty and emerging disease.” It is a “hybrid philanthropy” that not only awards grants to support nonprofit organizations, but also draws upon the expertise of Google employees and Google’s infrastructure, invests in for-profit endeavors, and lobbies for policies that support its philanthropic goals. As of January 2008, and the Google Foundation (with $86.9 million in assets as of 12/31/06) have committed more than $75 million in grants and investments. 

Canadian Jeffrey Skoll, the first employee and president of eBay who is worth an estimated $4.2 billion at age 43, has set up two complementary ventures. In 1999, he established the nonprofit Skoll Foundation (with $339.4 million in assets as of 6/30/06) to invest in, connect and celebrate social entrepreneurs. In January 2004, he also created Participant Productions, a for-profit company that exists to tell compelling, entertaining stories that also create awareness of the real issues that shape our lives.  Participant films have included An Inconvenient Truth, Murderball, North Country, Syriana, Good Night and Good Luck, and Fast Food Nation. 

In 2004, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar (40 years old with a net worth of roughly $9 billion) created the Omidyar Network with his wife, Pam. The Omidyar Network seeks to build and sustain environments characterized by equal access to information, resources and tools, the ability to connect to others with shared interests, and a sense of ownership over outcomes. The network has funded businesses and nonprofit organizations to advance its mission, and it plans to engage in public policy and other areas to enhance the network’s reach and impact.  

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates (age 52 with a net worth of $59 billion) and his wife Melinda created the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000 to help reduce inequities in the United States and around the world by bringing innovations in health and learning to the global community. Although it was created as a more traditional foundation, the size of the Gates Foundation eclipses all other foundations in the U.S.: its assets total $33.1 billion (as of 12/31/06), while the next biggest foundation (the Ford Foundation) has assets of $13.7 billion (as of 9/30/07).

Entrepreneurial Philanthropists Online

The following projects were featured in the Wall Street Journal on August 21, 2007 (“A new generation reinvents philanthropy”).

In 2004, Matt and Jessica Flannery – ages 28 and 27 at the time – started as a personal project and officially launched the online microfinance platform in 2005. Kiva lets individuals connect with and loan money to unique entrepreneurs in the developing world. As of 2/17/08, more than 250,000 lenders have made loans through totaling $22.6 million. 

Project Agape’s “Causes” program on FaceBook allows users to create online communities to advocate for various issues, charities and political candidates. Launched in May 2007 (co-founder Joe Green is 24), Causes seeks to “democratize activism” by providing an arsenal of tools for users who want to leverage their network on Facebook to effect positive change. By August 2007, the program had attracted more than 2.5 million Facebook users, raising some $300,000 for nonprofits and politicians. 

Ben Rattray (age 27) launched the social networking site in February 2007, which allows users to join “virtual foundations” of peers dedicated to specific causes. By August 2007,’s 30,000 members had raised nearly $50,000. also helps to connect its networks to the many nonprofit organizations that are already working to advance worthy causes around the world.


2 Responses to “The “New Philanthropists””

  1. 1 Eddie Radshaw February 19, 2008 at 12:02 am

    I had a friend who used Kiva and had great success. I think it’s such an interesting site!

  1. 1 Re-Districting of Nonprofit Boundaries and Migration of Leaders-to-Be « Philanthropy Re-Wired Trackback on March 3, 2008 at 9:17 pm

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