by Antonia Ruffell
What we can learn from America’s prominent tech philanthropists
The tech industry in the US has created multiple billionaires – and with it, some of the world’s leading philanthropists. This wealth is in a league of its own, but there are still valuable lessons to learn from their approach to giving.
1. The tech boom has created lots of billionaires
The Forbes 2023 ranking of the world’s wealthiest people found 313 billionaires who made their fortune in technology, including six of the top ten richest people. Technology is the third most common sector for billionaires – and the wealthiest of them all, worth some $170 billion more than next-place fashion and retail.
Tech ranks strongly among Australia’s richest too. The Forbes 2023 Australian rich list lists Atlassian co-founders Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar, Canva co-founders Melanie Perkins and Cliff Obrecht, and WiseTech Global founder Richard White among the top ten wealthiest Australians.
2. Tech founders are willing to give their money away
US tech entrepreneurs are good at making money – and at giving it away. In the Forbes 2023 Top 25 American Philanthropists, one-third made their money in tech.
Compared to many inheritors, these first-generation wealth creators are free of a mindset where capital preservation is the priority. Most are signatories to The Giving Pledge, having committed to giving away the majority of their wealth to address society’s most pressing problems.
The Australian Financial Review’s Top 50 private givers list is also seeing the impact of tech, with the 2023 list headed by MYOB founder Craig Winkler. Craig and his wife, Di, established the Yajilarra Trust in 2009 and gave away $165 million in 2022, up from $104 million in the previous year. They aim to give all their money away in the next 10-12 years.
Other tech founders among the AFR Top 50 private givers are Melanie Perkins and Cliff Obrecht; the Cannon-Brookes Foundation; and the Susan McKinnon Foundation, established by MessageMedia founder Grant Rule.
3. Data and evidence are the bedrock of tech giving
Tech founders bring an entrepreneurial mindset to their giving, often driven more by evidence than emotion.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (the world’s largest private charitable foundation) was an early leader in using data-driven, results-oriented philanthropy to address global challenges at scale. Guided by the belief that every life has equal value, the Gates Foundation focuses on areas such as global health, poverty alleviation, education, and access to information technology. It has spent its money, among other things, on malaria prevention, improving access to clean water, and pushing to complete the worldwide eradication of polio.
Evidence-based decision-making is also championed by Facebook and Asana co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife Cari Tuna (who have a net worth of $6.8 billion). The billionaire couple is among the top 25 American givers, having already given $2.11 billion. They are prominent members of the effective altruism movement, an approach that uses evidence and reason to combat the world’s most pressing problems, such as reducing malnutrition and malaria. Through their foundation, they are major funders of the American charity evaluation organisation, GiveWell which assesses the cost effectiveness of organisations and lists charities that save or improve the most lives per dollar spent.
In Australia, moral philosopher Peter Singer’s charity The Life You Can Save runs a similar initiative, recommending 20 highly vetted charities that are proven to be impactful in saving the lives of people in extreme poverty.
4. Trust-based philanthropy is the new way to give
MacKenzie Scott, the ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, takes a different approach. She is the leading voice in trust-based philanthropy — a newer school of thought gaining popularity. These donors want to give money and then get out of the way, recognizing that they lack experience with the intractable issues they are funding.
Scott has given money away at a rapid pace. In 2022 she announced that she’d donated almost $2 billion to 343 nonprofits, bringing the total she’s given to around $14 billion in less than three years – more than anyone except Buffett, Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates, and George Soros – all of whom have been giving for over 20 years.
Scott has not dispensed with data and analytics entirely. Instead, she conducts quiet research and evaluation using an extensive network of advisers to pick worthy recipients of unrestricted gifts – trusting the charities to make the best use of the money. She calls the approach Yield Giving, named after a belief that you add value by giving up control.
While still beginning its giving journey, the Canva Foundation embraces an approach that yields control. They have partnered with GiveDirectly, a nonprofit that sends money directly to the world’s poorest households via unconditional cash transfers. It is based on the idea that people living in poverty deserve the dignity to choose how best to improve their lives — and cash enables that choice.
5. The tech sector embraces transparency
MacKenzie Scott is part of a trend to be more transparent about charitable giving, spearheaded by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey who created a public spreadsheet that tracks his donations. In 2020 Dorsey pledged to give away $1 billion of shares to his philanthropic venture #StartSmall, and every gift is made public.
The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Ballmer Group, Omidyar Network, and the Gates Foundation all publish some or all of their grants online. This open approach to philanthropy by tech encourages others to give and helps to demystify the giving process.
6. Founders are problem solvers – they make big bets and think at scale
Tech entrepreneurs don’t sit back and watch bad things happen. If they see a problem, they try to fix it. They take active steps to change things for the better and address inequality. And they do it at scale.
This type of problem-solving thinking can deliver lasting change, but it requires philanthropists to be bold, take risks and focus relentlessly on issues. For example, the Gates Foundation is on a mission to eradicate malaria and polio – and other tech givers are also making big bets to eliminate disease.
A newcomer to the top 25 American Givers list is Google co-founder Sergey Brin who Forbes estimates has given away $2.55 billion. Brin has donated $1.1 billion toward Parkinson’s research, making him the largest individual donor to that disease and one of just a few people alive who’ve put more than $1 billion toward a specific condition.
Other recent announcements include a five-year, $46 million pledge to advance genomics research from Facebook (now Meta) CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan (through the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative) and a $425 million multi-year gift from former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and his wife Connie to create The Ballmer Institute for Children’s Behavioral Health at the University of Oregon.
7. Tech founders embrace innovation
Tech founders have always been fearless about disruptive approaches and innovation. Embracing new ideas and taking risks is how they made their fortunes – and they also bring that fresh thinking and action orientation to their giving .
EBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife Pam (who rank #223 in the Rich List but are among the Top 25 Givers, having distributed $1.82 billion) embody this approach, aiming “to address some of the most complex and critical economic and social problems of our time by challenging orthodoxy, making catalytic bets, embracing risk and ambiguity, and being creative in the way we work, to create positive, systemic change in the world.” They founded the Omidyar Network in 2004 – a hybrid structure that undertakes philanthropic giving and invests in innovative for-profits that are tackling social problems. They have a big vision – to bring about structural changes that will fundamentally shift the systems that govern our daily lives.
In Australia, newer philanthropists here are taking significant systemic approaches too.
Mike Cannon-Brookes and his wife, Annie, have committed $1.5 billion to address climate change. Like the Omidyars, they take a blended approach that uses a mix of for-profit investments and philanthropic initiatives, with $500 million committed to advocacy and activism through their charity Boundless which launched in late 2021. Boundless brings an Agile methodology, typically championed by tech startups, to giving – they focus intensively on one challenge at a time, building a strategy to make progress and scouting for partners and projects that make it happen.
The Susan McKinnon Foundation, established by MessageMedia co-founder Grant Rule and wife Sophie Oh, similarly has a bold vision and takes a novel approach. The Foundation ranks number nine among Australian’s biggest givers, giving $31 million to enhance the effectiveness of government last year. They believe that through smarter decision-making, improved policy development and better service delivery, governments at all levels in Australia can create a society that is fairer, more prosperous, and has greater opportunity for all.
8. Tech is stepping up to fight climate change
Cannon-Brookes isn’t alone in addressing the climate crisis. Many philanthropists recognise that climate change is a critical issue: a 2022 Center for Effective Philanthropy survey found 60% of US-based foundation leaders agree that climate change is an extremely urgent problem. And tech philanthropists are leading the way.
Ranking third on the billionaire list, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has been slow to ramp up his giving – but in 2020, he launched the Bezos Earth Fund, a $10 billion, decade-long commitment to drive climate solutions. Other top tech billionaires include the CEO of Intel, Gordon Moore, and his wife Betty, who joined ten other private funders last year in the Protecting Our Planet Challenge, a $5 billion pledge to protect 30% of the planet’s most important areas by 2030.
9. Tech giving is here to stay
Tech has been a disruptive force in the philanthropic sector since the Gates Foundation launched in 2000, bringing new approaches that prioritise data, embrace risk and make big bets. The emerging new wave of young, self-made tech founders is no exception.
The tech sector has experienced a downturn in the last 18 months, but it has still created hundreds of millionaires in Australia alone – and there are many more who have yet to realise their wealth. These tech founders are passionate, innovative and willing to give their wealth away quickly. The Australian tech philanthropists we see today are the trailblazers – and a culture is growing where giving when you’re successful is both the expectation and the norm.