In recent days, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation has come under fire with allegations of sexual misconduct in the office, and reports of a toxic, oppressive workplace by a growing number of former employees.
These employees have complained of bullying, shouting, and lewd comments, among other things. The main staffer accused of such behavior, the foundation’s second in command, has since resigned. CEO Emmett Carson took to Twitter seeking to mitigate the damage and assure the public of his willingness to take complaints seriously, but the foundation’s board said Thursday that it has placed Carson on paid administrative leave.
The allegations come at a time when, from the foundation’s perspective, things have otherwise been going well: In late February, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the foundation’s assets grew by 65% in 2017, reaching $13.5 billion and surpassing those of the Ford Foundation.
The Silicon Valley Community Foundation also enjoys the satisfaction of being on the “cutting edge” of philanthropic trends. Receiving the majority of its funds from Silicon Valley giants such as Mark Zuckerberg, Jan Koum, and Nicholas Woodman, the foundation has been proud to devote much of its resources to research, advocacy, and policy work.
These priorities reflect their preference for systemic, structural change rather than direct assistance or old-fashioned charity. Carson cites a number of instances in which the foundation’s research has led to changes in California law. As one employee put it, “We want to be going after the root causes.”
But the Foundation has not gone without criticism for its approach to giving.
As Silicon Valley’s success has led to a skyrocketing cost of living in the area, the foundation seems to be doing relatively little to address poverty in San Mateo and Santa Clara, regions where a third of residents need public or private assistance to make ends meet. While the foundation talks a big game about valuing innovative solutions, it has shown incredibly little ingenuity in using its own backyard as an example of how its new approaches might be successful.
Marc Gunther laments that “A region with so much money and even more brainpower, as well as persistent and worrisome problems, has somehow produced a community foundation that is, except for its size, unexceptional.”
Commenting on the Silicon Valley Community Foundation in January of 2017, William Schambra criticized it for “defining ‘community’ as the world, or as whatever the donor wants it to be.” Rather than invest in the local community and pursue charity towards its closest neighbors, the foundation is blowing up the notion of “community” in community foundation by taking a rootless approach to philanthropy, one in which trendy causes unrelated to San Mateo and Santa Clara take precedence.
Schambra adds that “The rest of our political and social institutions are now discovering the dangers of globalism at the expense of local community, so maybe it’s time for philanthropy to consider the cost as well.”
The foundation, Schambra seems to be saying, should learn from phenomena like the Trump election and Brexit: when normal, everyday people feel ignored or left behind by the elites in their society, it is only a matter of time before their discontent manifests itself in some way.
Elite philanthropic organizations like the Silicon Valley Community Foundation need to realize that a “maximal impact,” “structural change” approach can have unexpected consequences that are not measurable or detectable until they have manifested themselves.
Before they face a crisis in their own backyard, such as widespread poverty, they should prioritize caring for their closest neighbors.
At a time when the Silicon Valley Community Foundation is under attack both for internal misconduct and for misprioritization of charitable dollars, we can see the limits of big-scale, “structural change” philanthropy, and the potential for old-fashioned charity, understood as love for one’s neighbor.
At a foundation that appears to symbolize optimism about creating positive change, employees report hellish conditions. Outside its doors, residents struggle to make ends meet. The situation reminds us that in trying to have a positive impact on the world, we could do worse than start with those closest to us.