‘Tech Backlash’ Perfect Time for Silicon Valley to ‘Disrupt’ CSR

Google BusIn an article posted last month on Salon.com, Julia Carrie Wong outs Silicon Valley for a lackluster response to the tech backlash embodied by protests of Google employee buses in San Francisco. She says “charity is not enough” and rightfully points out the relative stinginess of “community benefit agreements” that the city signed with tech companies in exchange for tax breaks. And while skyrocketing rents and higher-than-average eviction rates have their roots in a long-term housing shortage caused by intense bureacracy and local opposition to new developments, the effects of a booming tech industry in an otherwise slow-moving economy are very real in the Silicon Valley.

But to charge that tech companies and their now infamous employees are THE cause of displacement and gentrification seems misguided. It begs the question: Exactly how should tech companies be responding to their outsize effect on the local economy?

Protests against rising rents and evictions in San Francisco have not fallen on (completely) deaf ears. Salesforce.com founder Marc Benioff has publicly urged other tech CEOs to give more back to the community and just announced the formation of a new initaitive called SF Gives. Formed in partnership with nonprofit Tipping Point, SF Gives aims to raise $10 million for local anti-poverty programs over the next 60 days through donations of $500,000 apiece from 20 companies. But Benioff also told the SF Chronicle that not everyone in Silicon Valley is on board: “We still have some pretty epic companies that have had IPOs and aren’t giving….There is a dark side here.”

The tech industry is a bubble, and I don’t mean in an financial sense. Companies like Google and Facebook are situated in sprawling campuses that have pretty much every service their employees might need as they clock long hours: on-site gyms, dry cleaning, free lunch and dinner (which means working through dinner is a regular occurrence!), and of course, shuttles to ferry their precious human capital to and from work. Tech employees travel in similar social circles, are regularly poached from competing companies in incestuous cycles and don’t exactly have a reputation for being socially well-adjusted.

This insular mentality is reflected in the out-of-touch approach to charitable giving of some big-name tech firms.

Twitter, for example, signed a “community benefit agreement” (CBA) as part of the deal that included huge local tax breaks from the city. Part of the agreement includes $60,000 worth of “promoted tweets” to be donated to nonprofits — a nice gesture, but hardly a burden to Twitter or a game-changer for nonprofits. Their CBA also includes a total of $388,000 in cash donations to local nonprofits. As Ms. Wong points out in her Salon Article, that’s just 0.69 percent of the tax benefit the company receives.

New initiatives like SF Gives highlight both the potential benefits and challenges of meaningful community contributions from the world of tech. And of course in comparison to other high-profile corporate contributors like Big Oil, Big Tech is a relatively new feature on the economic stage that is just starting to encounter pressure to give back more of its bottom line.

Yet it is still worth noting that to date we have only seen business-as-usual corporate philanthropy coming from an industry that defines itself as an army of “innovators,” “connectors” and “disrupters.”

Where is the innovation and disruption in their social responsibility programs?

Image credit: Flickr/eblaser

Lauren Zanolli

Lauren is a freelance writer based in New Orleans. She has covered a wide array of geographies and topics, from economic and business developments in the Arabian Gulf, to arts and culture in Turkey, to social enterprise and the microfinance sector in Southeast Asia. She's also worked on the business side of things, with two years experience in strategy and marketing at a large renewable energy firm. Keep in touch: @laurenzanolli and lauren.zanolli@gmail.com.

One response

  1. Great piece. The breakthrough will happen when the companies see beyond philanthropy as the definition of “doing good”. What matters is not giving out money (though that’s nice) but the culture and purpose of the organization and how it is intertwined in the greater ecosystem of society.

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