7 tech billionaire philanthropists tackle world ills

Idealistic go-getters on the move

From left, Bill Gates and Gordon Moore
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As technology advances at warp speed, it's also creating wealth at an unprecedented pace, minting new billionaires and giving philanthropy a new spin. A new breed of so-called technophilanthropists are cropping up in the U.S. These idealistic go-getters are committed to using their wealth and innovation know-how to solve serious global ills.

"I would almost call it the Mark Zuckerberg phenomenon. You've got a lot of younger tech entrepreneurs making massive fortunes quickly, deciding to dedicate a pretty big chunk of that to charitable causes," said Michael Gentilucci, tech and Wall Street editor of InsidePhilanthropy.com. Many of these philanthropists use their entrepreneurial instincts to approach giving from a business perspective, "particularly with respect to global development," said Gentilucci.

Drawing from their penchant to disrupt industries and create new products and services, these do-gooders eschew top-down approaches to development and embrace data-driven innovation. It seems they are constantly stoking their imagination and getting things done.

—Posted by Robin Micheli
13 November 2014

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg
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Mark Zuckerberg, now just 30 years old with a net worth of $32.6 billion, became the poster boy of tech wunderkinds as co-founder of social networking giant Facebook. He also made a name for himself in 2013 when "The Chronicle of Philanthropy" crowned him and his wife not only the most generous givers of the year but also the youngest ever to earn the honor. The median age of donors on the list: 72.5.

Catapulting the couple to the top of The Chronicle's list was their donation of 18 million shares of Facebook stock to a donor-advised fund through the nonprofit Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF). Valued at $1 billion, it was the single-largest philanthropic donation that year.

In 2012, Zuckerberg and Chan had also donated 18 million shares of Facebook to SVCP, but it was then valued at only about $500 million, though worth more than $1.3 billion today. Two years previously, when Zuckerberg was 26, he made history by giving $100 million to schools in Newark, New Jersey. (By comparison, Bill Gates made his first nine-figure donation—$110 million—in 1993, when he was 37. The trajectory of technology has changed since then and with it the philanthropic timeline of its leaders.)

The Zuckerbergs' giving has drawn some criticism, including complaints that the Newark donation was spent on high-priced consultants. And it's not clear how the couple's money will be distributed by SVCF, though $120 million has been allocated to the San Francisco school system. Still, Zuckerberg's generosity is making a mark. In October, he and his wife joined philanthropists, including Bill Gates and Paul Allen, in the fight against Ebola, contributing $25 million to the cause.

Bill Gates, Microsoft

Bill Gates
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On Nov. 2 Bill Gates, the former Microsoft co-founder and CEO, announced his foundation would donate $500 million to fight malaria and other infectious diseases in developing countries. It's an enormous sum, but for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, it might be considered a drop in the bucket. The foundation, launched in 1997, has given away more than $30 billion to date—an amount that makes him the most generous person on the planet. Even measured as a percentage of wealth, Gates' giving amounts to more than a third of his $81.6 billion net worth.

The foundation distributes its donations among an array of organizations and causes spread across issues including food security, homelessness, education, reproductive health and other challenges facing Africa and other developing regions.

Many of its initiatives center on using technology to improve lives, with such objectives as developing new vaccines, increasing crop yields, building technology centers for the rural poor and finding innovative solutions—like those encouraged by the foundation's Reinvent the Toilet Challenge, which aims to bring sustainable sanitation to 2.5 billion people currently without it. Recently, the foundation also pledged $50 million to help contain Ebola.

Some experts say it's not Bill Gates' donations that comprise his greatest philanthropic contribution but his power of persuasion. He and Warren Buffett launched the Giving Pledge in 2010, asking billionaires to commit at least half of their fortunes to charity. They've enlisted 127 big givers so far.

Jeffrey Skoll, eBay

Jeff Skoll
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He was the first employee and first president of a company that revolutionized commerce. Jeffrey Skoll made his fortune at eBay—and as soon as he left, he began giving it away.

The 49-year-old launched his Skoll Foundation in 1999 with the riches he'd received when eBay went public. With the stated goal of driving large-scale change through investments in social entrepreneurs, the foundation manages $5 million in assets and has awarded $413 million to 108 individuals and 87 organizations on five continents, using various mechanisms to assist projects in education, health, food security and economic development.

Its namesake has also distributed $25 million through the Skoll Global Threats Fund and hosts the Skoll World Forum at Oxford every year.

Social entrepreneurism isn't the only way Skoll, whose net worth is $3.8 billion, seeks to change the world. He also believes storytelling can make a difference, and through his company Participant Media has produced 55 films ranging from An Inconvenient Truth and Syriana to The Help. Cable channel Pivot TV is also a holding of Participant, which is notitself a nonprofit but has developed a nonprofit social action network called TakePart.

Gordon Moore, Intel

Gordon Moore in 2007
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Almost 40 years ago, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore predicted computer power would double every two years, assuring his place in history as the creator of "Moore's Law." Today he and his wife, Betty, are the second-most-generous tech philanthropists, right behind Bill and Melinda Gates, when giving is measured against wealth, according to InsidePhilanthropy.com. In 2001, the site reported, the Moores used half of their wealth to launch the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, which manages $5 billion in assets and has made $3 billion in grants. (Moore's net worth is currently $6.9 billion.)

At 85, Moore is not among tech philanthropy's young breed, but his charitable giving is focused on the future, with an emphasis on science and technology. Its efforts in environmental conservation include ocean planning and reform of fishery management, preservation of wild salmon habitats and an initiative in the Amazon that has helped conserve an area four times the size of California.

The foundation has also committed $300 million to Moore's alma mater, the California Institute of Technology, created data science hubs at major research universities and made several grants supporting the development of an earthquake early-warning system. And $250 million has gone to the Thirty Meter Telescope, which will be Earth's most advanced and powerful optical telescope when it opens for business in 2021.

Patient care is another target of the foundation—one in which the Moores' personally give, too. A lot of that is anonymous, but they recently made a public pledge of $50 million to the University of California San Francisco Medical Center.

Marc Benioff, Oracle

Marc Benioff
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When Marc Benioff left Oracle in 1999 and started his own company, Salesforce.com, he pioneered cloud computing. He also pioneered an innovative model of corporate giving and has emerged as a forceful voice urging the tech industry to give back.

From the inception of Salesforce.com, 50-year-old Benioff (net worth $3.4 billion) has integrated philanthropy into the structure of the company with the 1-1-1 model of giving: 1 percent of product, 1 percent of equity and 1 percent of employee hours go to charitable efforts.

To date, the Salesforce.com Foundation has provided more than $68 million in grants to 23,000 higher-education and nonprofit entities and coordinated more than 680,000 volunteer hours from employees, who each receive six days off a year to volunteer in their local communities. The foundation also donates and discounts Salesforce.com products to organizations, including the American Red Cross.

Benioff's evangelical efforts have led several companies, including Google, to adopt their own 1-1-1 models integrated into corporate philanthropy. And last February he launched SF Gives to fight poverty in the Bay area, where tech has driven increasing income disparity, and systematically pressured his CEO peers to sign on to the cause, enlisting 20 companies, including Apple, to pledge a combined $10 million to the cause. Benioff, whose net worth is $3.4 billion, was quoted earlier this year, pointing out, "Our industry is not known for its generosity." He's made it a personal mission to change that.

Michael Dell, Dell Computers

Michael Dell
Simon Dawson | Bloomberg | Getty Images

In October of last year, Michael Dell finally won a battle with Carl Icahn and bought full control of the computer company he founded 31 years ago. He spent $24.9 billion in the process—his net worth today stands at $21.4 billion—but Dell, 49, and his wife are also committed to spending their money to improve the lives of children in poverty, through the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, which they established in 1999.

The foundation, which focuses primarily on health and urban education, has pledged about $1 billion so far and holds another $7 million in assets. (Outside the foundation, the couple has given an estimated $200 million to charitable causes.) Microfinancing and other enterprise assistance, a darling of tech investors, plays a big role in their portfolio, with equity and loan investments focused on education, mortgages, health care and start-ups in India and South Africa. (Foundation statistics include 25,000 households provided with water, sewage and toilets; deworming treatments for 19.5 million Indian children; 18,000 Indian youths placed in new jobs in 2011 and 2012.)

In Philadelphia, the foundation deployed its Healthy Corner Store Initiative (the city registered a small but significant drop in obesity). In Texas, it provided student performance "dashboards" and other tools to 6,500 educators to help them better address pupil needs, and projects that all teachers will have the tools by the 2016-17 school year.

And among its Dell Scholars, low-income students who receive financial assistance and mentoring, 78 percent through 2012, have received bachelor's degrees. That's 589 lives transformed.

Paul Allen, Microsoft

Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, during a news conference for the launch of his new venture Stratolaunch Systems in Seattle, Washington, Dec. 13, 2011.
Kevin P. Casey | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The owner of the Seattle Seahawks likes to invest his philanthropy dollars in causes close to home—and close to his heart. Of the Microsoft co-founder's lifetime giving of more than $1.5 billion, about a third has gone to improving community causes concentrated in the Pacific Northwest, and about the same amount to the Seattle-based Allen Institute for Brain Science, a nonprofit neuroscience research center launched with Allen's seed money in 2013.

About a year ago, Allen gave the institute funding for a study of brain injuries like those suffered by NFL players to determine whether they lead to diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

Allen may be 61, but he shares with his younger tech counterparts an impatience with government and established institutions and their pace of progress that drives many of their efforts, too. The "privatization" of science, education and other public-sector interests is controversial, but critics don't stop people like Allen, whose net worth is $17.1 billion, from pursuing big ideas with the potential to affect big change.

Since Allen and his sister Jody founded the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation in 1988, it has invested more than $10 million dollars in organizations serving tribal communities. Targeting poverty has been a priority; for example, its Basic Needs Program helps people hardest hit by economic downturns. The foundation has also supported education and the arts, expanded into marine and wildlife conservation and funded the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence.

Allen has also distinguished himself by pledging $100 million to fight Ebola, the largest donation to date, and setting up a website for donations of any size: www.TackleEbola.com