One in four people living in poverty, a quarter of a million dependent on food banks to help fill their dinner tables each month, and a 20% jump in homelessness over a two year span—figures like these seem like descriptions of areas known for economic hemorrhaging, like parts of Spain or Greece. Instead, they illustrate growing inequality in one of America’s most robust regions: Silicon Valley.
Home to major tech companies and venture capital firms, Silicon Valley now has the most millionaires and billionaires per capita in the country. Job growth in the area leads the nation, and philanthropic giving in the region is also on the incline. Just a few months ago, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made headlines when he made a gift of $500 million in stock to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, which itself manages close to $3 billion in assets.
Yet giving by Silicon Valley philanthropists does not necessarily benefit the people of Silicon Valley. Locally-focused philanthropy has actually suffered a downfall, with grants to community-based organizations declining by 20% in the past 5 years. Housing insecurity, food insecurity, gang violence, and poor education results, among other issues, have all surfaced as unaddressed social needs in this supposed land of plenty.
To shed some light on these discrepancies, the Stanford Social Innovation Review held a webinar with panelists Lisa Sobrato Sonsini (from the Sobrato Foundation), Jen Ratay (of SV2), Chris Block (CEO of the Silicon Valley chapter of the American Leadership Forum), and Michael Lombardo (Executive Director of Reading Partners). The panel was moderated by Alexa Cortes Culwell, founder of Philanthropy Futures. Their discussion focused on two primary questions: why aren’t more people giving to local causes in the valley, and what can be done to encourage giving?
In answer to the first question, the panelists agreed that the lack of local giving is largely a consequence of disconnection between Silicon Valley’s business leaders to the local community and misconceptions about the area’s needs.
On the one hand, Silicon Valley is home to one of the most diverse populations in the U.S. There are immigrants from all over the world importing their innovative ideas in the tech sector, and there are domestic transplants who have relocated to strike their fortune in the valley. These business leaders brings with them visions for change on a global or national scale, which is not in itself a bad thing, but can inadvertently lead to local needs being overlooked. For many of the region’s new elite, there is no sense of rootedness to the Valley beyond a place of work, and therefore no personal motivation to see its underserved communities prosper as well.
Similarly, many people just don’t understand the extent of poverty and inequality in the the region. Silicon Valley’s reputation as a wealth hub eclipses its grittier undercurrent, and the increasingly insular practices promoted by many large companies only deepens the divide between the haves and have-nots. Major tech firms now have private shuttle systems and work campuses that resemble exclusive microcosms, all but eliminating the need for their employees to interact with people outside of their social sphere. As Lisa Sobratino Sosini put it, “You can live your life without knowing what’s going on on the otherside of the freeway.”
So what can be done about the disconnect? The short answer: develop a sense of community and deepen relationships, because empathy and compassion are at the heart of philanthropy.
But this is easier said than done, so many of the panelists offered their own strategies and tactics for engagement, summarized below:
For Chris Block and the American Leadership Form, creating opportunities for civic, nonprofit, religious, foundation, and corporate leaders to convene, learn from one another, and build personal connections has led to tangible social impact. Chris shared an example of how a community leader and corporate executive, who would not never known each otherwise, met and got to know each other’s personal causes through the Forum, ultimately leading to the funding of a state-wide children’s insurance program.
Meanwhile, Jen Ratay emphasized the need to build awareness and foster compassion, which her organization does accomplishes promoting field scans/site visits and encouraging action across generations through volunteering with disadvantaged people. With direct exposure to community needs, Jen observed more of SV2’s donors making flexible, multi-year grants to nonprofits and practicing impact-oriented philanthropy.
Michael Lombardo reminds us to speak the language of donors. It’s hard to visualize poverty in Silicon Valley, and since this is the land of data and analytics, it helps if nonprofits can supplement their heart-tugging stories with data similar to what corporate leaders would use in making business decisions.
Finally, Lisa Sobrini and and Alexes Culwell encourage donors to think differently about their money. It’s true that the value of a dollar doesn’t go as far in the Valley as it might in a developing country or rural area of America, which might lead donors to send their grants elsewhere for a greater return on their social investments. But it’s important to get donors comfortable with the idea that you do indeed have to pay more to enact social change in Silicon Valley; it’s the inevitable price of development.
About the Author
Anh is the communications and development coordinator at Vietnam Health, Education & Literature Projects (VNHELP), a nonprofit dedicated to transforming the lives of Vietnam’s poor. Prior to her current position, Anh worked with Give2Asia in the business development department to research and develop material for Vietnamese American and corporate philanthropy. She also served as managing for Vietnam Talking Points (part of OneVietnam Network), where she wrote about Asian American identity and culture.