From Tech's Sean Parker, a Strong Manifesto for Philanthropy—With Some Familiar Ideas

Within parts of the nonprofit sector, philanthropists from the tech world are viewed with unease, if not contempt. They are often seen as brash upstarts who charge into fields with more confidence than experience—wrongly imagining that their geek brilliance will translate automatically to solving social problems. They’re abstract techno-Utopians, it’s been said, who are detached from the lived reality of ordinary people and naively believe that digital solutions can work in magical ways to better humanity.

Not long ago, I argued that many of the generalizations about tech philanthropists were just plain wrong. Based on IP’s in-depth analysis of dozens of donors from this sector, I suggested techies weren’t actually that much different from other emerging philanthropists. “The biggest thing to keep in mind about tech philanthropy,” I wrote, “is just how large and diverse this world is, and how difficult it is to generalize about these funders. Caricature at your own risk.”

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That said, there are definitely some shared through-lines among the younger philanthropists emerging from the tech world. And this weekend, Sean Parker published a long essay in the Wall Street Journal that articulated the worldview of an influential subset of these givers. In fact, Parker’s pieceon “Philanthropy for Hackers”is the closest thing yet to a manifesto for tech philanthropy. And given the vast wealth this world commands, it’s a call that deserves close attention.

To cut to the chase: Parker has delivered a strong statement for why and how philanthropy should be done better. Other emerging tech philanthropists may give more than Parker, like Mark Zuckerberg. And others may be more deliberative, like Dustin Moskovitz. But it is Parker who has now cast himself as a leader of a crew of young, astonishingly rich givers. That’s a good thing, since guys like Zuck or Sergey Brin (another huge donor) don’t tend to say much about giving. Tech philanthropy’s new generation needs an articulate evangelist, and now it has one in Parker, who created Napster and was Facebook’s first president (which is how he made his $2.5 billion fortune.)

Bear in mind, though, that despite the framing of his essay, few of Parker’s ideas about philanthropy are unique to the tech world. Instead, most of his particulars have long circulated among a variety of donors, as well as outside critics of philanthropy. Parker has done a service in urging techies to embrace these ideas. But it’s important not to overly associate these ideas with tech philanthropists.

So what did Parker say? He said that established foundationsa world of “largely antiquated institutions”had become too bureaucratic and cautious. He said that given the lack of any real bottom line in philanthropy, the “primary currency of exchange is recognition and reputation, not effectiveness.” He said that wealthy people should start giving earlier and should aim to “deploy capital quickly,” with the goal of spending down in their lifetimes. He said that donors should keep their grantmaking operations small and nimble, and make big bets. He said that they should invest in areas where they have a comparative advantage and can achieve leverage, targeting solvable problems with solutions that can scale and deliver “exponential returns.” He said that philanthropists often had to “get political” and back advocacy in order to succeed.

Boy, that all sounds familiar, and in a good way. Parker’s essay nicely synthesizes arguments that have been made by Chuck Feeney (“giving while living”), Bill Gates (scaling solutions to solvable problems), Herb Sandler (a nimble quest for leverage), and Michael Bloomberg (who has long focused on making big bets to shape government policy.)

Indeed, a great many donorsincluding quite a few from finance, latelyhave embraced a lean venture model of “catalytic” philanthropy that emphasizes big bets, scalability, and a willingness to get political. That model has spread, and tracking its growing reach is a key theme of our writing at Inside Philanthropy.  

Parker’s essay is likely to be misread as a claim that techies like himself are boldly reinventing philanthropy. That’s not what it is. Rather, he’s saying to his friends in tech, "Given who we are, with our hacking mindset, here’s an approach to philanthropy that really makes sense for us." Parker is trying to rally his people around a vision; he’s not the visionary, nor does he claim to be.

It’s far from clear how many tech philanthropists will heed Parker’s call. As I said earlier, this is a large and varied world of donors, and many give in quite traditional ways. Sean Parkerwho never went to college and could have gone to jail for Napstermay indeed be something of a rebel hacker. But the universe of tech billionaires is also full of valedictorian types from Stanford and Harvard, like Sheryl Sandberg, who’ve made their fortune on the business end of the industry.

As more tech money starts to flow, I’d bet that we’ll see a good slice go to safe and familiar causes. A case in point: One of tech’s biggest givers, Marc Benioff, has channeled most of his money to Bay Area hospitals—a good cause, but one more associated with old-style philanthropy. Sergey Brin’s biggest gives have been to the Michael J. Fox Foundation.  

Then there is Sean Parker himself, who has so far dedicated much of his giving to one of the most popular philanthropic causes of all-time: medical research. Granted, with his gifts for cancer and allergies, Parker has gotten behind research that until recently was on the fringesimmunotherapybut that doesn’t change the larger picture: a rich guy caught up in the chase for medical breakthroughs, one of the oldest stories in philanthropy. The Parker Foundation, unveiled last week, is working in three areas: life sciences, global public health, and civic engagement. The first two priorities were also embraced by the Rockefeller Foundation when it got up and running a century ago.

While some techies clearly aim to do their philanthropy in new ways, and talk a good game about disrupting this or that sector, this is still not a crowd of givers that stands out for their efforts to challenge the status quo regarding the big issues of the day. On the contrary, many are mum on those issues: Can you think of any of tech givers taking on racial disparities, for example? Or grappling with the dire economic plight of low-skilled workers? Or addressing the long-term fiscal challenges facing government at all levels as public payments to seniors balloon?

A number of those “antiquated” legacy foundation are grappling with these tough and complex problems. But aside from education, I can’t think of many places where younger tech givers are very ambitious. So far, it seems, this crowd prefers to reach for the low-hanging fruit. There are some major bright spots emerging, like Dustin Moskovitz’s foundation, Good Ventures, but the overall picture of giving by this sector is pretty tame.  

Sean Parker’s emergence as a leader here is a good thing, and it’s great to hear him call for techies to get behind giving while living through a lean venture model of philanthropy. But keep in mind that improving how philanthropy is done is not the same as challenging how the world works. Smart money can nibble at the status quo just like dumb money can.

Peter Thiel famously said about technology: “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” How will things go with tech philanthropy as the new givers pursue what Parker calls “hackable problems?” We wanted disruption but instead got more mosquito nets.

For the record, I’m all for mosquito nets. But somebody let me know when the real revolution in tech philanthropy gets going.