Can Foundations Stay Relevant?

Can Foundations Stay Relevant?

October 19, 2016

“Reducing our carbon footprint is not just a technical scientific necessity; it has also emerged as the human rights challenge of our time.” - Desmond Tutu

Last week I attended a first-ever Innovation Conference hosted by Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF) in San Francisco, CA. The invite-only gathering featured prominent groups from the philanthropic and tech community, to discuss technology for social good as it is “changing how we live, work, and play.”

The conference began with an homage to exponential curves from Paul Saffo of Long Now Foundation, who encouraged grantmakers to think long-term. Philanthropy can look out over multiple generations to change the world, unlike tech companies who need to repay their investors much sooner.

The final keynote featured the presidents of Ford Foundation, Knight Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, and Skoll Foundation. Their conversation landed on a central question - in this time of tech disruption, new wealth and power concentration - can legacy philanthropic institutions stay relevant? The presidents agreed on the need to take an honest look in the mirror, incorporate diverse viewpoints, and engage their communities.

This type of event is exactly what gets me excited about the nonprofit sector. Here we have billions of dollars unhinged from the responsibilities of seeking profit, ready to be gifted to people to solve meaningful problems for the common good. Furthermore, here is a group of smart and influential people exploring how technology can rapidly advance social change. As a cliché Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur looking to “make a difference,” I was fired up for this conference.

But something shocked me...

Silicon Valley’s Biggest Blindspot?

During the 3-day event, there was hardly any mention of climate change or the environment. No keynotes, no session tracks, no demos. As we irreversibly veer past 400 parts per million in global CO2 and face what is arguably the most important human rights struggle of our time, there’s virtually no discussion here. It’s like the Earth doesn’t exist. 

Think about this! California is dealing with an unprecedented water drought in a public state of emergency. California wildfires have become a year-round crisis, burning millions of acres and costing billions of dollars. Extreme conditions are threatening California’s farms - one of America’s largest food sources - causing devastation for farmers and underprivileged communities. Not to mention, industrial agriculture is a primary driver of greenhouse gases.

Not on the agenda.

For all its waxing poetic about the future, Silicon Valley seems content with a world that's feeling more like dystopian science fiction - the ice is melting, the bees are dying, the reefs are bleaching, the rainforests are burning. The smog is in our brains. And the planetary boundary warning signs are flashing red. 

Not on the agenda.

Just consider how Silicon Valley’s wealth and industry are created by companies who control some of the most advanced, resource-intensive supply chains in the world. Those 1.5 billion smartphones shipped last year require an interconnected set of construction, mining, transport, assembly, and disposal activities that are wreaking havoc on our waterways, food chains, and biosphere. Global landfills and people’s yards are being overloaded with e-waste - exacerbated by planned obsolescence designed by brilliant engineers in pursuit of infinite growth from shiny offices atop invasive land development amid endless cars. Silicon Valley is a resource-hungry economy in a resource-hungry empire, refusing to take responsibility for its footprint - or even acknowledge it. 

Not on the agenda.

Please know that I deeply respect the philanthropic community - the people, the work, its role in so many movements for justice, equality, community, and peace - its countless untold contributions to the wellbeing of humankind. And I constantly marvel at the ingenuity and extraordinary impact of this special place we call Silicon Valley, grateful for the opportunities it has afforded me. I have neither the credentials nor the desire to cast stones. I’m with you. I write this as a concerned global citizen, compelled by the urgency of now - worried that we are asleep at the wheel.

So at the risk of ruffling some feathers, I must ask you - I must challenge you - how can we credibly discuss “technology for social good” and philanthropy’s role in it, with genuine compassion for future generations, without meaningful conversations about the natural environment? How is it missing from our list of strategic initiatives? How do we call-out privilege in its many forms, but then miss this one so badly? 

We should have a baseline recognition by now that we’re in a climate crisis, and this is a fundamental human rights issue. In just a few generations, we have dramatically changed the ecosystems of this 4.5 billion year old planet. With carbon emissions alone, we’ve baked in extreme weather and water consequences. Along with the enormous task ahead of cleaning up after the industrial explosion of toxic chemicals, fossil fuels, nuclear waste, plastics, deforestation - and needing to reinvent how billions of people live (e.g. sea levels) - we undeniably find ourselves on a planet with diminished water, air, soil, and species. Children are deprived of experiencing what we had as birthrights, and we can’t be bothered to look after our own trash. The debts of our sins are coming due with compound interest, and this madness continues in a world of extreme inequities - as we sharpen our sticks, everyone struggling to find their own way. It’s a collective denial so great, are we simply paralyzed by grief?

The Innovation Conference sessions explored philanthropic opportunities around gamifying education, data ethics, wearable sensors, and the future of work. Diverse, expert panelists discussed the tech community’s worrisome lack of gender and racial inclusion - and the resulting biases. Attendees recognized that despite Silicon Valley’s unicorn-style success, stark inequality exists. We didn’t need to look far - just outside the conference hotel, many people roamed homeless in the streets. 

The speakers were great. Anthony Romero, Executive Director of the ACLU, advised philanthropy to fund more privacy watchdogs. Sheila Marcelo, CEO of, shared how data is bringing millions of workers out of the shadows. Lucy Bernholz plugged platform cooperatives and a decentralized web. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women, called for more disruptors of patriarchy. Khan Academy described impressive advances in education tools. Silicon Valley Debug had a refreshing grassroots perspective. MacArthur Foundation’s new $100 million grant program, 100&Change, encouraged bold thinking. Google’s cardboard VR headsets came in every conference bag, while Facebook’s Oculus Rifts sprinkled the “Innovation Lab.” A repeating theme from participants was the need to treat Internet access as a basic human right.

Here are my detailed session notes: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3.

Overall, the conference was engaging and thought-provoking. But our planet and environmental justice were mostly absent from the discussions, which I found heart-breaking.

  • If we’re serious about human rights - what about fresh air and clean water for our children, free from industrial pollution? 
  • If we value diversity - what about biodiversity and the protection of species against runaway 1000x extinction rates? 
  • If we’re improving education - what about nature-based learning, school gardens, and reconnecting kids with the Earth? 
  • If we’re talking about the economy - what about capacity-building for environmental regeneration and recalculating the climate math
  • If we’re considering health - what about real food, fixing school lunches, and the consequences of chemical pollution?
  • If we’re looking at exponential curves of historical significance - what about the accelerating decline of natural ecosystems, scientific forecasts of “6th extinction” events, and our perilous crossing of Earth’s planetary boundaries
  • If we’re committed to the disadvantaged and underserved - what about the women and minorities most impacted by ecological destruction, marginalized families who cannot afford rising food prices, and climate refugees losing their homes due to America’s industrial age? 

Of course, there are many philanthropic groups tackling environmental causes, including ones at the conference. Replicable and regenerative models are emerging in communities around the world, like solar cooking, learning gardens, backyard conservation, permaculture, food forests, land commons, living buildings, green chemistry, toxic waste cleanup, ecovillages, biomimicry, open source cooperatives, and more.

Yes we need innovation - to transform agriculture, build resilient housing, design high-integrity supply chains, and rewire our economy. But it’s deeper than that, and philanthropy can play a pivotal role. In this frightening age of mega-corporations and political dysfunction, foundations can be extremely relevant.

According to the SVCF 2014 Annual Report, environmental causes received just 5% of the foundation’s grants made that year, or a paltry $21.8 million. That’s less than 0.4% of the $6.5 billion in assets of the world’s largest community foundation during the Earth’s hottest year on record. Those assets jumped to $7.3 billion in 2015, along with more record-setting temperatures

Will this be our legacy?

In his series "Waiting for Climate Change," Isaac Cordal creates a set of ephemeral and partially submerged installations to draw attention to rising sea level change [Inhabitat]. This art was definitely not at the conference.

Fortunately, a Canadian came to the event with a different kind of perspective. Ian Bird, President of the Community Foundations of Canada, shared how their community has begun a journey of reconciliation with indigenous peoples, who see themselves as inseparable from nature. Ian rejected outdated paradigms of intervention and progress, saying we need to listen to the indigenous peoples and learn from their “technologies,” like the medicine wheel. We are the ones who need to change.

It was the only time I heard indigenous peoples directly mentioned, despite the conference taking place over “Columbus Day” and during Standing Rock, the monumental standoff happening right now in resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline. Standing Rock has become a tipping point for indigenous rights - bringing together hundreds of tribes and thousands of water protectors - galvanizing the environmental justice movement.

As we rediscover our indigeneity, I suspect we’ll find a brighter future is not just about more data, more coding classes, or more tech devices for disadvantaged youth. Our goal shouldn’t be to equip the next generation slightly better for a world that’s falling apart. If those approaches were working, we wouldn’t be in this mess. 

Instead, let’s get in touch with something deeper. In the words of Charles Eisenstein, author of The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible:

“I don’t know about you, but I didn’t become an environmentalist because someone made a rational argument that convinced me that the planet was in danger. I became an environmentalist out of love and pain: love for the world and its beauty and the grief of seeing it destroyed. It was only because I was in touch with these feelings that I had the ears to listen to evidence and reason and the eyes to see what is happening to our world. I believe that this love and this grief are latent in every human being. When they awaken, that person becomes an environmentalist.” - Charles Eisenstein, Fear of a Living Planet

Near the end of the conference, I caught up with Dr. Emmett Carson, President of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. I asked him why climate was so absent from the discussion. He explained that sessions were designed around anticipated donor interests and big data themes, and understandably needed some focus. Dr. Carson assured me that environmental issues are important to the foundation, and he pointed to SVCF’s work around water projects as an example of this commitment. 

I hope so. After all, there can be no innovation on a dead planet.

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