One Hint and Many Questions About How GoPro's Founders Will Give Away $500 Million

Yet another big tech winner seems to have been inspired by Mark Zuckerberg’s style of philanthropygiving big and early, relying on the nimbleness of a donor-advised fund. 

Of course, I'm talking about Nicholas and Jill Woodman, who got a lot of attention recently when they transferred 5.8 million shares of stock from their high-tech camera company, GoPro, to a fund they created at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF).

One reason that transfer generated attention is that it sent the stock tumbling 15 percent after becoming public. Whoops! Currently, shares in the fund are worth around $435 million (they were worth closer to $500 million when it was announced).

Amid the controversy about the gift, nobody has much bothered to ask where the money will go.

According to SVCF’s chief executive, Emmett Carson, the Woodmans have not yet said what causes they intend on supporting. Carson says the foundation “tries to meet donors where they are in fulfilling their charitable interests, whatever they might be. And they are often overlapping and interconnected charitable interests."

The most concrete hint of the Woodmans' philanthropic interests can be found in a $50,000 gift they made last year to the Tipping Point Community. As far as we can see, this is the biggest donation the couple made to a nonprofit before GoPro went public and they became billionaires. 

Tipping Point, in case you don't know it, is the leading tech-backed anti-poverty group in the Bay Area, operating as a pass-through grantmaker. Unsurprisingly, it takes a venture approach to supporting nonprofits, carefully scrutinizing each group that it adds to its portfolio.

So one possibility here is that the Woodmans will make the Bay Area a major focus of their giving, a choice which would dovetail with growing efforts by tech philanthropists like Mark Benioff to do something about income disparities in the region. 

That guess is further supported by the fact that the Woodmans chose SVCF as a place to house their fund. As a community foundation, SVCF’s primary interest is in supporting local non-profits, and to that end, it gives out hundreds of grants every year, mostly in health, education, and community development programs.

As the same time, though, grants are increasingly going to organizations throughout the country and the world, a reflection of its megadonors’ global interests and outlook. Most notably, the foundation has been closely involved in several disaster relief efforts in recent years. So, as a practical matter, the Woodmans' money could be directed anywhere. 

As for the Woodmans themselves, Nick has been described as  “the mad billionaire.” He's an eccentric thrill seeker who studied visual arts and creative writing at UC San Diego, and once traveled around the world surfing; we could easily see him supporting the arts and education along with environmental organizations, particularly those that have to do with protecting the ocean. And with all that unique travel experience, he would have the breadth to get involved in global development efforts in far-flung corners of the world. There’s less to go on when it comes to his wife, Jill, though the two did meet in art class, and financed GoPro in part by purchasing shell necklaces in Bali and selling them along the California coast.

As for their politics, there is no record of either Woodman ever having made contributions to candidates or political parties at either the federal or state level. 

Why did the Woodmans set up a donor-advised fund instead of a foundation? For all the obvious reasons, no doubt, starting with the fact that the infrastructure is already in place. One thing techies know is that it's often better to grab something that already exists than to build it from scratch (which is why they buy each other's companies all the time).

That's all the more true if you're a busy person, lacking both the time and the expertise to scale a grantmaking operation. Many of those who are new to philanthropy use donor-advised funds as a sort of stepping stone to their own foundation, a possibility the Woodmans have indicated by calling their fund the Jill + Nicholas Woodman Foundation, even though it isn’t a foundation at all.

Another reason, at least for some, is the degree of anonymity donor-advised funds can provide. While donors typically retain a lot of control over the causes and organizations they support, foundations that manage donor-advised funds are not required to reveal which donors are supporting which organizations.

Finally, there’s a growing trend among young tech entrepreneurs to give it away while they’ve got it, rather than building up their assets and making larger contributions down the road. All the more reason to hit the ground running with a donor-advised fund. 

Related: How Zuck Is Inspiring Other Tech Winners to Give Big 

 The Woodman gift pushed the Silicon Valley Community Foundation’s assets to slightly more than $6 billion. Along with the donations from Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan over the last couple years, now valued at nearly $2 billion, this latest infusion has helped make SVCF by far the largest community foundation in the country.

It’s not really all that surprising that a community foundation in the Bay Area would hold this distinction. What is a bit surprising, however, is that until a couple years ago, that title was held by the Tulsa Community Foundation, which counts Bank of Oklahoma owner George Kaiser as the larger contributor to its $4 billion in assets.