Silicon Valley Philanthropists Study 'Problem First, Tool Second'

Silicon Valley tech philanthropists, many of whom amassed fortunes at a young age, take a business-like approach to their giving, studying a problem, exploring ways to address it, and then investing heavily in scaling up the most promising solutions, the New York Times reports.

Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife, Cari Tuna, a former journalist, are good examples of the approach. Through their foundation, Good Ventures, the couple applies the principle of "effective altruism" to their giving — choosing projects they think will deliver the most benefit to the greatest number of people as efficiently as possible. To that end, they have partnered with GiveWell, a nonprofit dedicated to finding outstanding giving opportunities through data-driven analysis, to identify projects that provide outsize benefits relative to  the dollars invested, donating nearly $30 million to the Against Malaria Foundation, a UK-based NGO that raises money for the purchase and distribution of bed nets in countries where malaria is endemic, and more than $47 million to GiveDirectly, a charity that enables donors to send money directly to poor people in Kenya and Uganda. At the same time, Moskovitz and Tuna are comfortable with taking risks in their giving. Recently, for example, they have directed some of their philanthropic dollars to efforts aimed at mitigating low-probability but potentially devastating catastrophes such as pandemics, bio-warfare, and threats posed by advanced artificial intelligence.

"The thing we focus on is expected value," said Tuna. "It's all part of doing as much good as we can with the resources we have....I actually expect that most of our work will fail to have an impact, and that is part of doing high-risk philanthropy well."

Unlike donors whose fortunes were made in traditional industries such as finance, tech philanthropists tend to support early-stage startups with disruptive ideas, are more directly involved in the organizations to which they give, and are more willing to adopt a different approach when something fails, said William Foster, head of consulting at the Bridgespan Group. In pledging $3 billion to eradicate disease, for example, Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, a doctor, are choosing to invest not in existing institutions but in efforts to build basic tools that can help the scientific community as a whole make breakthrough discoveries. Those investments include an initial commitment of $600 million to the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, a new nonprofit research institute. Going forward, the couple likely will combine giving to nonprofits with venture capital-style investments in for-profit businesses and support for policy advocacy — an approach pioneered by Omidyar Network, a "philanthropic investment firm" created by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife, Pam.

"We have a motto here: Problem first, tool second," said Matt Bannick, a former eBay executive and managing partner of ON, which also takes board seats and provides networking opportunities and training to the organizations it finances. "There are a lot of people who have tried to figure out whether you can boil down impact to a number," said Bannick. "It's a bit of a fool's errand."

Vindu Goel. "Philanthropy in Silicon Valley: Big Bets on Big Ideas." New York Times 11/04/2016.