Meet a geek with a good idea, and you can almost see the swimming pool, palm trees and pina coladas in his eyes. But talk to him and you’ll often find that plans for living the high life are only a few months deep. Once the long hours have been recovered and the mansion bought, most tech-type entrepreneurs want to be known for more than their invention and certainly more than the deepness of their tan. They often want to use their money to change the world too.
That’s not new, of course. Those with more money than they can spend have long been inclined to give it away, often in return for seeing their name on the hospital wall. In Slate 60’s list of the top philanthropic donors of 2008, only Michael Bloomberg at number nine (with a $235 million donation) made money with technology, and you have to drop another two places before you reach Richard Weiland, one of the founders of Microsoft. He donated just over $174 million in 2008. The bulk of the money on Slate’s donor list though came from finance, real estate, investments and other traditional industries and a full eight of last year’s top eleven private donations though came in the form of bequests.
Bill Gates is Alive and Giving
Bill Gates at least had the generosity to give away most of his fortune while he’s still alive. Helped by Warren Buffett’s contribution, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gets to manage an endowment of $35 billion, sharing the loot between global health initiatives, global development programs and the United States, particularly in the area of education.
Gates has practically been around long enough to be considered “old money” — in tech terms at least. Slightly newer and no less generous is Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay. Listed as the 156th richest person in the world, Omidyar owns over $2.6 billion worth of eBay shares. His Omidyar Network has already committed some $270 million to a range of philanthropic causes.
Clearly though, it’s easy to dig deep once you’ve already cashed in. So what’s happening with those on the way up? How generous are the newer entrants to the tech world to those in need of more than a lava lamp.
Google’s slogan doesn’t promise much. “Do no evil” might sound like an upgraded version of the Hippocratic oath but it doesn’t say that the search giant is planning to do any good either. In fact, the company, as well as its founders, have been quietly busy handing out cash to good causes. Google.org, Google’s charitable side, has already committed over $100 million in grants and investments, much of it to develop clean energy, improve global health and enhance information access. Makani Power, for example, received a $15 million investment to support research on high-altitude wind energy. Aptera Motors and ActaCell netted $2.75 million to help develop technologies to be used in plug-in electric vehicles. And the Seva Foundation received $2 million to support programs to prevent blindness and restore eyesight in India, Nepal, Tibet, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Egypt, Tanzania and Guatemala.
Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the company’s two founders who are each estimated to be worth about $18.5 billion, are themselves no slouches when it comes to philanthropy. Brin’s family foundation runs assets of $103.5 million and he himself donated $106 million between 2002 and 2006. Page handed out $135 million in that period, and his family foundation handles $134.4 million.
Facebook for Good
It’s when you move on to the newest forms of Web 2.0 that the hands stop reaching the bottom of the pockets. That’s perhaps not too surprising. Social media and the collaborative Internet are new enough for the money to be still under construction rather than piling up in bank accounts waiting for someone to figure out what to do with it all. And often, it’s not being made at all.
Mark Zuckerberg’s charitable donations, for example, aren’t being reported but we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he’s made some. We can understand though if he hasn’t. This year, Zuckerberg’s fortune was said to have dropped below $1 billion so he’s probably been busy watching the pennies.
His website though has been making efforts to give back. Facebook for Good is a page dedicated to helping Facebook fans “[s]hare your stories about how Facebook has helped you give back to your communities, effect change or connect with a distant relative.” Stories contributed include the moving tale of a lost cat which was reunited with its owner after two years thanks to social networking, a post about Facebook acting as matchmaker to a couple that had met in summer camp as teenagers then got back together after finding each other online, and a description of how cops can use the site to catch criminals. More effectively, Facebook has also made a number of virtual gifts available for members to buy each other. Between 90-95 percent of the fee will benefit sixteen charity/advocacy groups. The remainder will be spent on administration rather than on enhancing Facebook’s profits. Or creating some.
Creating ways for members to give to charity though is not the same as giving to charity yourself. But it is popular and for Web 2.0 companies with lots of spirit and little spare cash, it’s a pretty good option. Tech blog Mashable is currently hosting the Summer of Social Good, using the power of social media to raise money for a bunch of good causes, including The Humane Society, Oxfam, WWF and the Lance Armstrong Foundation. Again, they’re not dipping into their funds themselves but they are donating time and effort, and that’s a kind of money too.
And what about the newest boys on the Web 2.0 block? There’s no sign that Twitter has donated anything yet, but there’s no sign that it’s made anything either. (A few “sponsored definitions” will only go so far.) But for a service that’s only been around for two years, it’s already spawned Twestival, which raised enough money for 55 water projects in Ethiopia, Uganda and India, and almost brought down a despotic regime in the Middle East.
Now that’s changing the world.