When Silicon Valley execs suddenly make billions, they turn to this man to help them give it away

Key Points
  • The Silicon Valley Community Foundation has shot from obscurity to become the largest of its kind in 10 years.
  • Large gifts from Mark Zuckerberg and other Facebook execs have driven the growth.
  • "Making money is difficult. Giving it away should be fun," says CEO Emmett Carson.
Source: Silicon Valley Community Foundation

In Silicon Valley, even philanthropy is hyper-competitive.

Giving away part of a sudden fortune is not as easy as it sounds when the donor wants to be a hands-on philanthropist.

"People come at you from every direction" when you become wealthy in a hurry, says Akiko Yamizaki, wife of Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang, who together have given away hundreds of million of dollars to a broad slate of charities and organizations since Yahoo went public two decades ago.

"Neither of us grew up wealthy, so we had no experience" in philanthropy, says Yamizaki, now chair of San Francisco's Asian Art Museum and who, like many donors here, was intent on producing measurable results with the couple's giving.

Fortunately for the tech industry's elite, Emmett Carson can show them how.

Carson is chief executive of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, an organization which Yamizaki credited with helping guide her and other wealthy families into their philanthropic roles.

Carson has led the foundation through a decade of remarkable growth, fueled by giving from newly rich and relatively young (for philanthropy) executives from the tech industry.

The foundation's assets have shot up from roughly $2 billion in 2007 to more than $8 billion now, according to figures it shared with CNBC.

That staggering growth has turned the foundation, housed on two floors of a modest office building in Mountain View, California, into the largest community foundation in the U.S., based on asset size and grant making, according to the Foundation Center. It's also one of the largest philanthropic organizations, period -- bigger than decades-older foundations started by storied American families like the Rockefellers, Mellons and MacArthurs.

In 2015, it gave away $825 million in grants, second only to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Last year it gave away $1.3 billion, bringing its total grant-making to local, national and global charities to $4.3 billion, according to the SVCF.

How did the organization become so successful?

It was created from a merger of the Peninsula Community Foundation and Community Foundation Silicon Valley in 2007, giving the new organization a chance to "eliminate all sacred cows," Carson says. He focused it on the two things every Silicon Valley donor wants: "A good user experience" and "hand-in-glove" involvement in the process.

"Everyone here (in the tech industry) is an expert, a learner. They want to dive deep," he says. "Making money is difficult. Giving it away should be fun."

Photo by Bloomberg

Large gifts from Facebook, GoPro execs

On the fundraising side, the SVCF has received gifts not only from execs who got rich in the 1990s dotcom boom, but also from a younger group of donors who've made their fortunes in the past decade.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, for example, have donated roughly $1.5 billion since 2010, according to SVCF marketing materials, in part into donor-advised funds that allow them to maintain some control over who gets the money -- whether it's a zoo, museum, ballet company or an alma mater.

In October, 2014, shortly after his company went public, Nick Woodman, CEO of action camera-maker GoPro, and his wife, Jill, gave $500 million.

A year later, Jan Koum, an immigrant from the Ukraine and a co-founder of the messaging service WhatsApp, donated $556 million in 2014, after Facebook bought his startup for $19 billion.

Thanks to gifts like these, the SVCF has grown so big so fast that, were it an internet startup, venture capitalists likely would be fighting each other for a piece of it.

And the foundation does act like a startup, focusing on expansion into new markets and innovating in its core "product" -- enabling users to donate however they wish.

Nick Woodman, GoPro Founder and CEO
Mark Neuling | CNBC

"We can transact in 69 countries and 140 currencies, including bitcoin and Ripple," Carson says, referring to two of the so-called cryptocurrencies that are shooting up in value this year.

"We take pre-IPO (shares) and real estate," among many ways ways of donating, he says, adding that donors "appreciate that we're innovating" in the field of philanthropy.

For example, when Jan Koum wanted to donate, he did so through a sale of Facebook stock that named the SVCF as a direct recipient of the proceeds.

Also like any successful start-up, the foundation examines its fundraising operations, even successful ones, with harsh scrutiny.

For three years, beginning in 2014, the SVCF ran a 24-hour campaign called "Silicon Valley Gives" that brought philanthropy to a new level of intensity.

"There was a lot of energy around it. People felt pressured, like they couldn't not give," Carson said.

It involved 14,000 participants and "was trending on Twitter," according to Carson.

But when some complained of "donor fatigue" -- and an additional fee tacked onto credit card transactions -- the SVCF decided to halt and re-evaluate the program, even though it had raised over $20 million in three years.

There was no way to do online payments without the fee, Carson says, but the Foundation won't bring the event back until it can "eliminate the rub" for donors.

Eliminating the friction

Another secret to its success is recognizing that donors are part of several overlapping communities via their jobs, cities and alumni networks. "They like coming to one place to get all their philanthropy done," says Carson.

The company also offers a service to tech companies that makes the SVCF "the back office" for giving for firms such as Cisco Systems, Yahoo, LinkedIn and eBay.

"Our goal is to eliminate the friction" between donors and their desired outcomes, he says, not only in Silicon Valley but in other tech hubs like Seattle.

For example, when Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen wanted to raise money for victims of the Ebola virus, or Starbucks founder and chair Howard Schultz wanted to stage a concert for U.S. veterans, the SVCF was ready to handle the fundraising, Carson says.

"Everyone has a different game plan into the (tech industry) ecosystem, a different notion of partnership," he says. "It's how we execute that distinguishes us."