Why Is This Giant Community Foundation—and its Leader—So Controversial?

Emmett Carson. photo: Creative Commons by  Knight Foundation , licensed under  CC BY 2.0

Emmett Carson. photo: Creative Commons by Knight Foundation, licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Silicon Valley Community Foundation may be the most intriguing—and confusing—institution in philanthropy today. It’s also surprisingly controversial.

The foundation is intriguing because it’s a go-to place for many tech leaders turning to philanthropy. Mark Zuckerberg is the most famous Silicon Valley winner to create a donor-advised fund at SVCF and to seek its help with his giving. But other billionaires have also set up funds there, including Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and GoPro co-founder Nick Woodman, along with tech donors who are less well known or rich.

Exactly what these donors are up to is hard to say, since a fast-rising tide of grants from SVCF—totaling $1.3 billion in 2017, triple that of 2013—mainly flows anonymously, and its staff embraces confidentiality with the zeal of Swiss bankers. Still, one thing is clear: Since its founding in 2007, SVCF is a key locus of one of the biggest stories in philanthropy right now. If you want to know how some of America’s top new givers operate, it’s important to get a grip on how this place works.

But SVCF defies easy explication. It’s no ordinary community foundation; rather, it seems intent on re-imagining how such entities operate. Many of its grants go to nonprofits outside its home region—to national organizations, to local groups in other cities, and to dozens of different countries. The philanthropists who have funds at SVCF are also geographically widespread, in contrast to the norm of most other community foundations. SVCF now has significant money under management from donors on the East Coast, and makes so many grants in this region that it hired a staffer in New York City in 2016 to handle all this activity. You know when the last time was that a community foundation set up an office 2,700 miles away from its headquarters? Never.

In a conversation, SVCF’s founding CEO Emmett Carson told me, “If the demand and circumstances warrant, we’ll have an office anywhere in the world.”

That comment underscores the expansive and fluid nature of this foundation. Not only are there no geographic boundaries around SVCF’s notion of “community,” but its methodologies are also elastic. It’s often trying new approaches to taking in assets and working with clients. Quietly, for example, SVCF has built up a large practice in impact investing. It also has scores of corporate clients that it advises on a range of matters—from selecting causes to forging a holistic strategy for corporate social responsibility. No other community foundation has a comparable CSR practice.

Growth and Controversy

SVCF last reported assets of $13.4 billion, more than double what it reported just a few years earlier, in 2014. While that eye-popping increase has a lot to do with the soaring value of Facebook stock held by the foundation, other metrics of growth are also impressive: In the past three years, for example, SVCF has roughly doubled the number of donor-advised funds it hosts. The foundation’s assets and annual giving make it one of the largest grantmakers in America.  

But as the foundation has grown bigger and more prominent, it’s drawn more criticism. In particular, not everyone is keen on how SVCF is disrupting the traditional community foundation model. Last fall, journalist Marc Gunther published a long article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review that channeled concerns that SVCF, and the tech donors clustered around it, weren’t doing enough to take on entrenched inequities in Silicon Valley.

Others echoed this point, including SSIR’s managing editor Eric Nee, who wrote, “Without a geographic focus, the concept of a community foundation begins to lose its meaning.” Nee suggested that SVCF wasn’t much different than a commercial DAF like Fidelity Charitable. He wrote, “the primary purpose of a community foundation DAF should be that most of the money will eventually go to a nonprofit serving its community, not sent abroad.” Phil Buchanan, the CEO of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, made a similar point in a blog post: “[C]ommunity foundations should aim to strengthen their communities and work to make them places where every citizen has access to meaningful opportunity.” Buchanan quoted an article that Emmett Carson had written in 2002 in which he said pretty much the same thing.

A related rap about SVCF is that it’s so focused on building up assets under management that it hasn’t created the capacity to properly service its donors or do the legwork of connecting them to local nonprofits. It’s said that SVCF vacuums up a lot of the new money with a sexy brand (this is where “Zuck" keeps a fund, after all), but then under-delivers for both clients and the community. Meanwhile, as donor-advised funds have come under more scrutiny, SVCF’s rise is seen by DAF opponents as more evidence of a growing end-run around the rules that govern charitable giving.

An Outspoken Leader

Emmett Carson has led the Silicon Valley Community Foundation since it was first created through a merger of two local community foundations. Before that, he had run the Minneapolis Community Foundation for 12 years, helping to triple its assets, and also worked as a program officer at the Ford Foundation.

Carson has proven to be an indefatigable institution builder and, as SVCF has thrived, he’s become an increasingly visible figure in philanthropy circles. He’s a frequent and forceful speaker at conferences and he’s not afraid to offer strong opinions about the sector—like when he suggested a merger of the Council of Foundations and the Independent Sector. Above all, he is a champion of SVCF and what it’s accomplished in its relatively short lifespan.

In October, Carson fired back at his critics in a long op-ed in the Chronicle of Philanthropy. He said that they not only posited a false choice between SVCF’s local and national giving, but failed to understand how the foundation actually works in its home region.

Carson is also a defender of the new tech donors who are its most important clients and who he believes are unfairly stereotyped. While he’s mindful of confidentiality, declining questions about specific philanthropists—and also noting that SVCF has many clients who aren’t from tech—he’s quick to offer spirited praise of tech donors.  

Before getting into all that, though, it should be said that Carson—like the foundation he oversees—invokes mixed feelings. His admirers, who include the Ford Foundation’s president, Darren Walker, see him as the right person in the right place at the right time. “Emmett is the perfect leader for the SVCF at this moment in philanthropy,” Walker told me. “He brings the sensibility of someone who was schooled in traditional legacy foundations, but he also understands client service.” In addition, Walker said that Carson grasps the challenges SVCF is up against in a region with high levels of inequality and many hidden pockets of poverty. He recounted Carson giving him a tour of some of the forgotten corners of Silicon Valley, including where the working poor lived in battered RVs.

Walker also described Carson as a rare example of a top leader in philanthropy who’s not afraid to say what he really thinks, even if it makes people uncomfortable. ”Emmett can be outspoken,” Walker said. And that’s “a sign of courage in a sector where everybody wants to agree with everyone.”

Those who are less keen on Carson see an element of self-aggrandizement in both his empire building and his pronouncements on the philanthropy world. The hustle he’s brought to building SVCF and his quick readiness to extol tech philanthropists have struck some as a rush to dominate a fast-emerging corner of philanthropy—no matter how much sucking up to hubristic young donors that may entail, or how overextended SVCF might get.  

There are also criticisms of the organizational culture that’s emerged at SVCF under Carson’s leadership, which one former employee on the website Glassdoor called “toxic.” Multiple reviews on the site describe a stressful workplace in which employees feel disrespected or fearful, leading to low morale and high turnover. “This is the most negative work environment I have ever worked in,” wrote one reviewer. “It is riddled with blame and shame, with no encouragement or praise for lower level employees.” While some reviews criticize Carson’s leadership, others single out Mari Ellen Reynolds Loijens, chief business, development and brand officer. Reviewers gave the foundation an average of two stars out of five—much lower than most other major community foundations.

Asked about these online comments, Carson responded with an emailed statement: 

While we cannot verify any anonymous reports through third-party forums like Glassdoor, we conducted an anonymous employee survey in December 2017, which 90 percent of our staff participated in, which showed 89 percent feel they have good working conditions, 94 percent feel safe in the workplace, 85 percent feel their supervisors treat them with respect, and 84 percent feel their supervisors help them handle personal issues at the workplace satisfactorily, among other positive findings. 

(Update: Loijens resigned from SVCF in mid-April as a result of revelations in an article by Marc Gunther and the foundation's board of trustees has initiated an investigation of the workplace issues.)

Despite reports of internal problems, along with rumors that some major donors have been unhappy with their client experience, Carson’s leadership position seems secure as he passes his 10-year mark as CEO. And even Carson’s detractors acknowledge his striking success in building up the foundation and connecting with a new breed of donors who’ve seemed mystifying—if not threatening—to many in the traditional philanthropy world.

As Carson sees it, though, his leadership and personality are not the important story at SVCF. Rather, it’s the way the foundation has worked to live up to its expansive founding mission.

A Culture of "Yes"

From the start, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation sought to do things differently. Its mission, which Carson calls a “radical departure” from the way other community foundations operate, is emblazoned on the wall right outside of Carson’s office, and says that its goal is to “partner with donors to strengthen the common good locally and throughout the world.”

Carson was hired as CEO after SVCF had already decided on this new path. “I was hired to carry out that stated vision... the truth is, we haven’t changed much in philosophy from our founding documents.” One reason Carson was chosen for the job is because he instinctively embraced SVCF’s mission. He told me that working at the Minneapolis Foundation was frustrating at times because of its geographic constraints and lack of flexibility. When donors came to the foundation wanting to make grants outside of Minneapolis, including abroad, Carson said he had to say, “I can’t help you. We’re not equipped... We can’t help you with the totality of giving you want to do.”

These constraints didn’t make much sense to him. He feels that most people—and donors—have an elastic concept of community, citing himself as an example. He was born and raised in Chicago. He went to college in Atlanta and graduate school in Princeton, New Jersey. Before moving to Silicon Valley, he had lived in Washington, D.C., New York City, and Minnesota. “Where’s home for me?” Carson asked. “All those places. I have connections and friends in all of them... The idea that my philanthropy is only going to reflect where I lived today simply isn’t how the world is. It’s going to reflect all those places.”

The breadth of donor backgrounds is especially true in Silicon Valley, where a large number of technologists are foreign-born and others came from elsewhere in the U.S. Serving this community of donors, SVCF founders believed, required an institution with a broad mandate. “For some of our donors, community means neighborhood,” Carson said. “For others, its local. For still others, it’s regional. For others, it’s national. And for some, they see themselves as global citizens.” Carson said SVCF wanted to “build an entity that can respond to all of those individuals,” one guided by a culture of "yes" when it comes to serving clients. So much money flows outside of the foundation’s home region because that’s where many of its donors want to make their gifts.

A Larger Debate

The debate over SVCF centers on a larger question about the proper role of community foundations and a narrower one about how well it meets local needs in Silicon Valley. At issue is whether this community foundation—or any other—can both think globally and succeed locally.

Lorie Slutsky, who runs the New York Community Trust, stressed to me how difficult it can be to make progress on entrenched problems within a single geographic locale. A defining strength of a community foundation, she said, is that it can mobilize and focus “collective activity” by donors with a shared concern about the same place. “The common element is that they want to join some effort.” Another key strength of such institutions is their mastery of local issues and players. “When you’re embedded in a community, you know who does what.”

Slutsky said about SVCF: “That’s not really a community foundation... There isn’t quite the level of commitment to the collective exercise.” She said that Carson had been enormously successful and wasn’t knocking what he was doing. “He just may be building a different model.”

Implicit in criticisms of SVCF is the idea that the foundation should and could push its donors to engage more locally. But Steve Alley, who previously ran the Tucson Community Foundation and now consults with community foundations across the U.S., said he’s not so sure that would work.

“There’s always a debate within community foundations about, are you serving the needs of local donors, or serving the needs of the local community?” said Alley, who has worked with some 80 community foundations. “At times, it can be challenging to do both, depending on what your local donor base wants.”

Alley cited the Tucson Community as an example. Many of the wealthy people with DAFs there are snowbirds, and as a result, a fair number of gifts flow to communities up north. “You have to meet donors where they are,” he said.

Alley said that there isn’t actually a one-size-fits-all model for community foundations, as some of SVCF’s critics seem to think. “There is a whole spectrum of what these institutions are, and no right and wrong answers, here.” What makes this model of philanthropy so successful, he said, is that it can be adapted to local conditions. Still, a study by the Center for Effective Philanthropy, which surveyed thousands of community foundation donors, found that most want such institutions to engage in local leadership and demonstrate local impact.

Yet it’s also true that donors everywhere have become more hands-on and directive in their giving. They’re now less likely to defer to staff at community foundations about how to distribute their gifts, said Alley, which reflects a larger trend, with nonprofits finding that donors want to have more control than in the past. Also, many new donors emerging these days, especially from tech and finance, are globally minded and/or drawn to national issues. Against this backdrop, it may not be realistic to imagine that SVCF can persuade its clients to fork over funds to, say, tackle poverty in East Palo Alto.

A 2016 report, “The Giving Code,” pointed to a deep disconnect between the tech winners in Silicon Valley and nonprofits struggling to deal with social and economic inequities. That report, written by philanthropy consultants Alexa Cortés Culwell and Heather McLeod Grant, found that the new tech philanthropists and local nonprofits “often operate separately, with little common ground between them.” It identified both cultural and organizational barriers to connecting these two worlds and called for a “new kind of conversation and coordination among local nonprofits and the region’s active and growing philanthropic community.”

It might seem that SVCF is ideally positioned to lead this conversation, given its ties to both tech donors and community groups. But some say the foundation is not playing that role and, as a result, is missing an opportunity to achieve greater impact.  

A Different Kind of Ecosystem?

Emmett Carson rejected as “wholly inaccurate” the claim that SVCF is disengaged from the challenges facing Silicon Valley. What the critics don’t understand, he said, is that the traditional community foundation model for driving impact doesn’t work in this sprawling and fragmented region. Nor do they appreciate the extent to which SVCF has operated differently as a result.

Many top community foundations focus on large and concentrated metropolitan areas that have cohesive nonprofit ecosystems. That was the case with the Minneapolis Foundation, which Carson previously led. But when he got to Silicon Valley, he said he encountered a very different situation at a new foundation aiming to work across nine counties that includes dozens of communities.

“You’ve heard about microclimates in Northern California—well, we have micro-nonprofit ecosystems,” he said. “We’re not a New York or Chicago. We all don’t go to the same things.”

Carson said that there aren't a lot of funders and nonprofits that operate across its entire home region, nor is there a strongly shared sense of mission among local stakeholders, many of which are small and “have very strict geographic limitations.” The critical mass of nonprofit activity that other community foundations tap into “just doesn’t exist.”  

What’s more, said Carson, some of the region’s biggest challenges—especially housing and transportation—aren’t easily solved through grantmaking. Rather, he said, “systemic change happens” through shifts in public policy.

That view has led SVCF to put a lot of energy into policy advocacy, far more than is typical for most community foundations, claimed Carson. It keeps a staffer in Sacramento to push its agenda in California’s capital and has worked with professional lobbyists. It’s been part of a number of coalitions aimed at making policy change, either state-wide or regionally.

Carson cited a range of policy issues that the foundation has taken on, often with success, such as helping secure driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants and helping orchestrate two 2016 county ballot initiatives in Silicon Valley to create more affordable housing. The foundation’s biggest success has been on predatory lending, where it spearheaded an effort to pass local ordinances across the Bay Area to restrict the practice. SVCF has also been involved in local education issues, and more recently, has played a role in efforts to protect immigrants in the Bay Area from Trump policies.

“A lot of our most important work has not been that we made a grant to something. It’s that we helped change a law that changes lives every year,” Carson said. Given the foundation’s modest discretionary grants budget—which amounted to just $13.1 million in 2017, smaller than those of other top community foundations—it makes sense that it would focus heavily on policy advocacy. This role will be on prominent display in May when SVCF teams up with a local NBC affiliate to host a debate among the candidates running for California governor moderated by Chuck Todd.

By SVCF’s count, it’s been involved in 14 collaborative ventures to shape public policy in recent years, many of which have engaged local government. A few also involved other funders, but some people suggested to me that SVCF wasn’t a great collaborator. An executive at another foundation in the region said, “They tend to go it alone—not showing much interest in cooperating with the other community foundations in the area or with the other big foundations, unless others are willing to follow them. They are difficult to work with when they do. The result, of course, is less accomplished than might otherwise be the case.”

In contrast, places like the New York Community Trust and the Boston Foundation have reputations for managing long-running collaborative funds that unite local foundations to target resources on problems in a sustained way.

It’s hard to assess claims that SVCF could do a better job of bridging the divide between wealthy techies and struggling nonprofits. But it’s worth noting that community foundations in other regions with lots of new wealth have also struggled to hook up emerging donors with local groups working to address inequities. For example, few of the five donor collaboratives now hosted at the New York Community Trust include the newer foundations created by top Wall Street philanthropists. Instead, these donors have mostly clustered around the Robin Hood Foundation. Likewise, while the California Community Foundation often collaborates with funders in Los Angeles to support local equity work, these partnerships rarely engage the city’s new big givers from sectors like entertainment and real estate. Many of these emerging L.A. funders haven’t joined SoCal Grantmakers, the local association of foundations, and don’t attend its events.

In other words, the chasm that’s described in “The Giving Code,” between an emerging wealthy donor class and community-based nonprofits, is not unique to Silicon Valley. It exists in other places, too, and reflects a deep disconnect between the social sector and the world of business, which is where donors have typically spent their careers. “Most nonprofit leaders speak a moral language that emphasizes social responsibility, social justice, equity, and the common good,” the report stated. “The new philanthropists are far more transactional when describing their work and their strategies. Theirs is a language of finance, of metrics, of power, of capitalism, of winners and losers.” A key to Robin Hood's success in New York is that it's embraced this mindset, but it's an outlier among local funding intermediaries in this and other ways—having itself been founded by new donors. 

While SVCF does have the ear of the tech elite, it’s not clear why it should have some special ability to get them engaged with local nonprofits. In fact, given that many tech winners grew up elsewhere, it’s almost certainly harder to bridge this divide in Silicon Valley than it is elsewhere.

There have been a few encouraging signs lately that tech donors care more about their home region. While Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan are known for their ambitious quest to tame all diseases, they’ve also engaged in large-scale local funding—giving over $200 million within the Bay Area in the past few years. Most recently, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative created a community fund that’s making local grants with the goal of building “stronger, more equitable communities.” Other tech leaders, especially Marc Benioff, the founder of Salesforce, have been outspoken on the need for the tech community to give more to local causes, and have led by example.

The Tech Donors

The Silicon Valley Community Foundation hosts more than 2,000 donor-advised funds, the vast majority of which have assets under $1 million. In 2017, these donors actually did give a lot locally—$436 million to nonprofits in the nine-county Bay Area region. That’s more than twice as much as the top community foundations in either New York, L.A. or Chicago. To be sure, the largest of SVCF’s “local” grants went to national or global groups headquartered in the region, or to universities. Still, if you scroll through SVCF’s grants database, you’ll find thousands of gifts to local nonprofits made in recent years. Most went out to the causes that donors everywhere favor—like education, health, arts, and human services.

To the extent that SVCF’s clients give short shrift to anti-poverty efforts, they are hardly alone: In 2017, just 12 percent of all charitable gifts went to human service organizations. Aside from the heavy flow of gifts to national and international groups, the overall profile of SVCF’s giving looks much like that of any other big community foundation.

Even SVCF’s global mission is not as unique as it might seem. A report by the Council of Foundations and the Foundation Center not long ago documented a rising stream of international gifts from major community foundations. It said that many of these institutions “are beginning to adopt a broader, more nuanced definition of ‘community’ than they have in the past.”

In the end, what mostly sets SVCF apart—and also invites controversy—is that it’s become a hub for a crowd of tech donors that is viewed with suspicion within the more established provinces of philanthropy.

Carson declines to talk about SVCF’s specific clients, or even to name them, but he’s quick to defend an emerging cadre of tech donors who he sees as unfairly maligned for cluelessness and arrogance. He says that, in his experience, these donors don’t approach their giving flippantly. “They’re learners... people don’t give them credit for how much they read and they think about things.”

Carson recalled an event that SVCF organized on diabetes to enable its clients to learn from a bunch of experts in the field. “We had a group of donors who were making these research scientists sweat," he said. “I’ve never been with a group of laypeople who have such technical questions, and knew the research as thoroughly as these people in the room.”

Among SVCF’s clients are Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and Cari Tuna, who’ve become known for taking the time to learn about philanthropy and really doing their homework before grants go out the door.

Beyond their eagerness to learn, Carson flagged other traits he’s noticed about tech donors. “They’re giving younger, and I find they bring an optimism to their giving because they believe things can be different. And because they believe things can be different, they’re not incrementalists... they go big.”

These traits distinguish the new tech donors from mega-givers coming from other industries who are more likely to play it safe by supporting blue chip universities and cultural institutions. But by pursuing systemic change, they’ve also attracted criticism. Tech givers, it’s said, don’t understand how difficult and entrenched social problems are, and are prone to grand, half-baked efforts that are doomed to fail.

Carson and SVCF were closely involved in one of the bigger flops of tech philanthropy when Zuckerberg turned to the foundation to orchestrate his $100 million gift to improve public schools in Newark, New Jersey in 2010. It was an early challenge for SVCF in figuring out how to do something it had never done before—namely, advancing a philanthropic venture on the other side of the country. SVCF threw itself into the project, although its role was so behind-the-scenes that it escaped mention in Dale Russakoff’s book on the Newark effort, The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools? 

Carson said he could talk “all day," about Zuckerberg’s controversial gift, which he believes has been unfairly characterized in the media. But to Lorie Slutsky, the episode stands as a good example of why community foundations should stay local. An institution with more knowledge about Newark and how to engage key stakeholders might have produced better outcomes, she said.

Regardless, Zuckerberg’s Newark gift may now be a dated case study of tech philanthropy. Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan turned this misstep into a learning experience and changed the way they operated. A subsequent, larger gift to improve Bay Area schools was executed in a very different fashion, involving lots of legwork to engage local stakeholders, including teachers.

A reason that Carson’s boosterism of tech philanthropists is off-putting to some is because there’s a sense that an entitled class of donors would be better served by a tougher shepherd—one who won’t shrink from speaking truth to money. To critics, Carson is either a yes-man to his deep-pocketed clients, or, perhaps worse, a guy who drank the Kool-Aid and actually believes the grandiose claims of tech philanthropists—e.g., that’s it actually possible to tame all diseases in the 21st century, a goal set out by Zuckerberg and Chan.

As Darren Walker described it, Carson truly has embraced the gospel of techno-optimism. “Emmett absolutely has become a believer in the power of technology to transform society.” Walker said that Carson is an especially big believer in data, which has made him a good fit for Silicon Valley.  

With his background in legacy foundations and connections to leaders like Walker, Carson has become an important intermediary between the emerging tech givers and the more established philanthropoid class—two groups that don’t naturally connect much and occasionally talk smack about each other. That bridge-building was on display in 2016, when SVCF convened a conference about technology and philanthropy. The foundation invited its clients and others in the tech world—but also made a point of including legacy grantmakers. Walker called the event “a pretty remarkable experience.”

What’s Next?

Given the trajectory of tech giving—which is up, up, and up, for decades to come—it could well be that the Silicon Valley Community Foundation is just getting started. Its grantmaking and assets could well soar far higher in coming years as more of the vast wealth created during three decades of boom times (for the rich, that is) gets harnessed to large-scale giving.

Or maybe not. It’s also possible that SVCF may be peaking right now, and that coming years will see the foundation’s growth limited by several factors.

First, as top tech donors advance in their giving, they may shift their assets out of donor-advised funds into foundations. The stratospheric growth of DAFs in recent years partly reflects the many new philanthropists who are attracted to a giving vehicle that is easy to set up and manage. But the traditional private foundation has a number of advantages that appeal to more experienced donors.

Page Snow, the chief philanthropic and marketing officer at Foundation Source, described to me the various reasons that donors turn to the foundation model. “The No. 1 reason I hear from clients is control,” Snow said. “In a private foundation, the donor can decide who’s on the board and who’s going to manage the money.” Another selling point of foundations is the way they can help keep families together and transmit philanthropic values, as well as help heirs build useful skills. “For very wealthy families, the board meetings are very important. It becomes a training ground in how to manage money, how to make presentations, how to make decisions.” Snow also said that the foundations offer “more options for more sophisticated philanthropy,” including making grants directly to individuals through scholarship or fellowship programs, a favored cause of many donors.  

Snow suspects that, over time, the pendulum will swing back to the foundation model. Some of SVCF's biggest clients have been with it for a few years, and may now be looking beyond the foundation. For example, when Zuckerberg announced last year that he would be selling Facebook shares worth billions of dollars to fund the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, it was reported that these funds would not be kept in his DAF at SVCF, but would instead be under the direct control of CZI. It wouldn’t be surprising to see some major exits from SVCF in the next few years. A crash of tech stocks, something bigger than the recent downturn in share prices for Facebook and other companies, could also derail the foundation’s upward trajectory. More broadly, SVCF’s reputation as a Pied Piper to tech moguls—a group now increasingly viewed with distrust—may not turn out to be the best brand after all.

Another challenge to sustaining SVCF’s growth is that the landscape of donor-advised funds keeps getting more crowded and competitive. Many big philanthropists shop around to find the right fit, and some of the biggest tech donors have lately chosen other DAF providers—a fact underscored by the stunning growth of the Goldman Sachs Philanthropy Fund. Thanks to an accidental disclosure by the IRS, it was recently reported that the investments bank’s DAF has attracted big chunks of money from Steve and Connie Ballmer, Jan Koum and Laurene Powell Jobs. Koum had previously drawn notice for giving to $566 million to SVCF after the sale of WhatsApp in 2014. It’s not clear whether he’s simply diversifying by contributing to the Goldman fund or if he became disenchanted with SVCF.

Judging by the scathing SVCF employee reviews posted on Glassdoor, though, it seems possible that the outfit has internal problems that could undermine donor service and slow its growth. “The turnover affects the donor experience, charitable impact, and the organization’s sustainability,” wrote a former employee. “SVCF has lost big individual and corporate donors because of it.” Another wrote, “I dreaded going to work everyday and am glad that my current employer restores my love for philanthropy.” While staff who’ve had unhappy experiences may be outliers within SVCF, as its internal survey suggests, the whiff of bad vibes here is likely to be noticed by donors engaged in due diligence. More than ever, those donors have plenty of other choices to set up DAFs. 

Right now, though, the future remains bright for the Silicon Valley Community Foundation—which, remember, is a pretty young institution. Many top community foundations have been around for more than a half-century, slowly building up their endowments and ties with local nonprofits. SVCF has come a long way in a short time, but we’re still very early in the story in terms of its potential impact.

That’s also true of the foundation’s tech clientele. These givers are just getting started. And whether they channel their donations through SVCF or other institutions, their influence is only going to grow.