What Silicon Valley billionaires decide to do with their money and power from now on in the Covid-19 crisis matters. It could affect the amount of suffering the US experiences in a recession and the amount of time before things return to normal. It might even have an impact on the number of people who will die from the coronavirus.
So this moment is a test for the nation’s billionaires, who tend to point to their philanthropy as a riposte against calls for higher taxes. If ever there were a moment for the nation’s wealthiest to part with considerable amounts of their net worth to solve a social problem, it is now.
But despite the frequency of the word “million” in press releases, observers say some of the public commitments to charity so far have been relatively small. For instance, two heavily tech-backed philanthropies, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and Tipping Point, have both unveiled $30 million fundraising goals for Covid-19-related giving, amounts that have struck outsiders as surprisingly modest.
David Callahan, a prominent journalist on the subject, deemed the billionaire class’s total giving to be “lackluster.”
“If anyone can afford to give more in response to the pandemic, it’s the richest of the rich, with far greater assets than private foundations,” Callahan wrote in his newsletter Inside Philanthropy over the weekend. “In recent years, though, giving by billionaire donors has amounted to only a tiny sliver of their wealth and many billionaires barely give at all. There are no signs yet that this crisis will change that.”
Though billionaires’ foundations and donor-advised funds face calls to drastically increase or accelerate giving at this moment, philanthropy veterans say it can take time — sometimes too much time — for lumbering foundations to come up with a coherent strategy in a crisis.
There is a lot still to be desired, but these 11 Silicon Valley billionaires — mostly men, and all white, as billionaires often are — are among the people who could make the biggest financial impact if they choose to do so. They have the money, the corporate power, the political relationships, and the celebrity to shape the country’s response to the pandemic. Watch these folks closely.
Jack Dorsey came out of nowhere on Tuesday when he said he’d move $1 billion of his equity in Square to a limited liability corporation (LLC) set up to fund Covid-19 relief, among other things. This instantly established Dorsey as one the most important philanthropists in the country right now.
The Twitter founder stopped short of offering an exact figure for how much he plans to give for fighting coronavirus and its consequences, but he said he will detail each of his grants in this spreadsheet. Even if he gives just 10 percent of the $1 billion pledged for the Covid-19 response, Dorsey would become the world’s biggest individual donor on this matter.
It will be especially revealing to watch Dorsey, given his meager public charitable record to date. A proponent of universal basic income, Dorsey might center his money on efforts to give Americans cash directly, or maybe he’ll back food insecurity, as his first grant went to a new food fund.
The founder of Microsoft has emerged as, by far, the most visible tech leader during the coronavirus crisis after committing $100 million. More important than that sum has been Gates’s willingness to use his voice and celebrity to offer an alternative to the White House.
“In a vacuum, then, people like Bill [resonate more] if we don’t have that clarity of voice from our political leaders,” said Jeff Raikes, who ran the Gates Foundation for a decade and remains a close collaborator of the Microsoft co-founder.
Offering sober, apolitical analysis, Gates has been on a ceaseless media tour, preaching a stay-the-course message when it comes to social distancing and full steam ahead when it comes to coronavirus treatment and vaccine development. Though after he suggested last week that he was spending “billions” on the construction of multiple factories for the production of potential coronavirus vaccines, the Gates Foundation seemed to backtrack, telling Recode on Tuesday that it was merely “exploring” this idea.
“The foundation is exploring using its catalytic funding to get the process moving, recognizing that any large-scale projects will require multilateral and/or government funding,” the foundation said in a statement.
While Gates has been burnishing his legacy as the country’s leading philanthropist for a while now, the coronavirus crisis has served as a reminder of just how revered Gates has become — which is a far cry from the Gates of the 1990s.
By the end of all of this, it’s possible no tech billionaire will have had a bigger impact on the world’s response to coronavirus than Ellison, Gates’s longtime rival. Ellison’s political influence could have altered the course of history.
The founder of Oracle has fostered an unusually close relationship with the Trump administration, including hosting a fundraiser for the president this February that raised $7 million for his campaign. A month later, Ellison was pitching Trump on an unproven drug to treat the coronavirus — hydroxychloroquine — and then Trump began pitching that to the nation before television cameras in the White House briefing room.
Putting this bug in Trump’s ear is a textbook example of how a billionaire’s political influence can far outstrip the influence of any charitable work. (Nevertheless, an official at Ellison’s charitable foundation declined to comment on any work on coronavirus.)
Benioff has been among the most visible Silicon Valley leaders in trying to solve the crisis — if not with his wallet then with his platform at Salesforce. Not all of the people on this list currently run companies, which removes a lever from how they can help.
The Salesforce founder has helped organize deliveries of personal protective equipment for the Bay Area, New York, India, and France. Benioff and Salesforce have sourced about 50 million pieces of equipment — such as face masks, gowns, face shields — so far.
Landed NYC! Congrats to the salesforce PPE team for landing in NYC tonight this National Cargo 747 FULL of PPE incl goggles, face shields, & protective suits donated to New York State & @NYgovcuomo. Special thank you to partners @AlibabaGroup @alibaba_cloud & CEO Daniel Zhang. pic.twitter.com/h63r1qkLwJ
— Marc Benioff (@Benioff) April 6, 2020
And Benioff has also been among the most visible tech leaders when it comes to using his megaphone. He has called on other CEOs to sign a commitment to not do major layoffs for the next 90 days. And he has encouraged officials in other cities to institute lockdowns.
Laurene Powell Jobs
Powell Jobs, whose Emerson Collective LLC does not typically disclose details of its grants, is giving a few million dollars to America’s Food Fund, a group focused on hunger that Dorsey has backed. She teamed up with Leonardo DiCaprio for the donation, which amounted to $5 million in total — Powell Jobs didn’t specifically share how much she committed herself.
She has been tweeting supportive things about the need for “a collective sense of humanity to spread faster than the virus” but has been very light on details. A spokesperson didn’t return a request for comment on any other Covid-related donations. Given that she has pledged to spend almost all of her money at some point, now would seem like a prime opportunity for Powell Jobs to make a dent in that fortune.
Larry Page and Sergey Brin
Google’s two founders, who oversee $100 billion between them, have long been criticized for being basically AWOL in the world of serious philanthropy. Page’s charitable foundation is among the country’s most prolific users of donor-advised funds, vehicles that allow a donor to avoid disclosing information about their giving.
So it should be no surprise that representatives of Page’s and Brin’s charitable foundations didn’t return repeated requests for comment. Neither foundation even has a website. The pair represents Silicon Valley’s untapped potential — or what billionaires could do if they changed their posture.
Bezos had until recently avoided making major charitable gifts, but over the last two years, as he became the richest person in the world and a tabloid star to boot, Bezos has pledged his three largest commitments to date. That included one of the single-largest charitable gifts of the entire Covid-19 response: Bezos last week said he was donating $100 million of his money to Feeding America, one of the country’s largest charities that operates 200 food banks around the country.
But for all his generosity, Bezos’s legacy during the Covid-19 crisis may be defined primarily by how he handles his day job. The Amazon founder and CEO has found himself under fire for how his company is treating its lowest-level workers, criticism that has come from some of the people who matter most: his employees.
The net worth of Ballmer has quietly skyrocketed over the last two years, making him now the sixth-richest person in the world. Ballmer has put $25 million into Covid-19 efforts, much of which is focused on areas where he and his family have personal connections: Seattle, Los Angeles, and Detroit. The Ballmers have tried to be realistic about the limited role that they feel the nonprofit sector can play.
“Philanthropic dollars can never take the place of government funding, but during this crisis grantmakers can fund emergency needs and provide potential bridge funding before the public dollars flow,” Connie Ballmer told Recode.
Ballmer said that she and her husband would be considering possible advocacy efforts to “shore up funding for children and families which may be trimmed during the recovery.” That could mean some political fights ahead.
Computer mogul Michael Dell has put $100 million toward coronavirus philanthropy, he announced last week. Of that sum, $20 million is going to the Gates Foundation for its treatment discovery work, and the other $80 million is still to be handed out but will go toward increasing medical capacity, among other things.
The country’s 18th-richest person, Dell’s commitment is among the philanthropy world’s largest pools of cash earmarked for the response. Dell, who lives in Texas, has receded from the public limelight, but he serves as a reminder that there are many billionaires who aren’t top of mind but who still control enormous amounts of money and influence.
Some billionaires have been playing a behind-the-scenes role in organizing other tech funders to try and finance new scientific research. Schmidt’s aides last month organized a call with about 150 other philanthropists, venture capitalists, and tech figures to explore possible research projects, Recode previously reported.
Schmidt is among the country’s most politically connected billionaires, so it makes sense that one Schmidt Futures official has said his team is focusing on public-private partnerships, too. An aide to Schmidt to declined to share what else he is working on.
One of Silicon Valley’s most thoughtful philanthropists, Moskovitz is a leader in a movement called effective altruism, which seeks to donate money to causes that are proven to make the greatest statistical impact. One of the Democratic Party’s biggest donors, there has yet to be a significant million-dollar donation to Covid-19 work from him, although he has long been among the few billionaires focused on preparing for a global pandemic. In just the last few weeks, Moskovitz gave another $300,000 for pandemic preparedness work.
But more symbolically, Moskovitz is a good person to follow if you’re curious about the thinking of the youngest generation and the newest tech wealth.
“Philanthropy is taking on a greater portion of the responsibility for response than anyone expected,” Moskovitz told Recode, “And unfortunately I think it’s clear to anyone closely following the situation today that philanthropy simply can’t solve this crisis on its own.”
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