Emmett Carson

EMMETT CARSON, SILICON VALLEY COMMUNITY FOUNDATION

Emmett D. Carson, PhD, is the founding CEO and President of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF). With over $6.5bn in assets, SVCF is the nation’s largest community foundation and among the top 10 of all US foundations. Its 1,700 family and corporate donor funds support a wide range of causes in the Bay Area, across the USA and around the world. 

How did you become involved in philanthropy?

I was raised to think you should help people who are trying to help themselves. I always knew I wanted to engage with ways to improve people’s lives and went to work in public policy, which gave me a good framework for understanding how different academic disciplines impact decision-making.

I was doing research at the Joint Centre for Political & Economic Studies when I was approached by the Ford Foundation about joining them. As a scholar at heart, I felt it would be good to learn how foundations work and how people think about giving. I saw it as a quick way to get some experience and fully intended to come back to academia, but 27 years later I am still in the foundation world!

Are you and your family philanthropists in their own right, and if so what is the focus?

If you mean ‘are we charitable?’, then yes we are. The language matters – not everyone who gives will see themselves as a philanthropist. Sometimes philanthropy is seen as something only rich people do.

My wife and I are pretty independent givers – she has things she loves and cares about, and I have other things that matter to me. We don’t question each other’s judgements and we each allocate funds in the way that we choose. There are areas of overlap where we both care about an issue, and on those we will collaborate as the combined funds can be more impactful.

I am very eclectic in my focus. I think am biased because in my job I focus on strategic impact – I’m a professional philanthropist, a professional giver. In my own philanthropy I somehow feel the need to be less strategic – driven by my heart and not my head.

I support places where I want to make a statement, so I don’t make impact my highest priority.  I support scholarships at my high school - I don’t know the kids or select the kids myself, and I don’t place restrictions on what the funds have to be used for. I have some trust that they will be responsible in how they use it, I don’t need to tie them to something. I tend towards educational themes with a few exceptions in the arts, and I care about historical things.

Who, or what, do you think has most influenced your giving?

My dad. He wasn’t a significant giver, but he was motivated by supporting things that he could touch, feel and understand.

There has been enormous growth in community foundations over the last 100 years and they’ve spread internationally. What do you think are the reasons for this?

Growth can be interpreted in terms of asset size or number of foundations – community foundations have grown in both ways, but there are different factors affecting each.

Asset size is growing because people are recognising that community foundations represent a way to achieve long-term strategic philanthropic giving. Donor-advised funds have become a commodity that people are more familiar with.

Younger donors are less interested in having the philanthropic infrastructure of a private foundation, which can be cumbersome. They have made a generalised statement that those kinds of institutions are not nimble, creative or innovative enough to be the vehicle of choice. They’re not looking for something with their name on it, and they tend to prefer the donor-advised fund model of community foundations.

In a hyper-connected world, people crave a counterbalance of connectedness within their communities. It gives them a sense of belonging. Community foundations offer people the opportunity to do their own thing, but alongside others who want to do good in their community.

Internationally, the growth has really been in the number of community foundations. The concept is like water – whatever container you want to choose, the water can take on that shape. It’s very flexible.  Success is not measured by asset size but by community participation – the value is in providing a way for people to come together and reach a community understanding and a direction that seems to be in the best interests of most people, without harming any of them. The idea of connectedness through community is very powerful, especially in countries where the NGO (non-governmental) sector is not strong – people come together and they give money away but they also talk about tough decisions together.

High net worth donors, particularly those who are younger and in the tech community, often choose new institutional structures and frameworks other than private foundations. Part of that, particularly with entrepreneurial tech donors, is that they have come to a general consensus that over time those institutions become more conservative. They exist in perpetuity but they don’t take risks.

There’s also a more fundamental philosophical difference that I think people have developed: ‘I want to get it done while I’m here’. They want to make change today to make people’s lives better, they’re not trying to create this monument that will exist forever. These high net worth donors, who are often very visible, are setting an example to smaller donors. They drive others to feel as though they want to establish their own mechanism for giving that is more accountable than a private foundation and perhaps expected to achieve results more quickly.

Can you talk about the history of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and how it has grown and changed?

SVCF came out of a merger that was ratified in 2006 and executed starting in January 2007. It brought the Peninsula Community Foundation and the Community Foundation of Silicon Valley together into one community foundation. I was recruited in 2006 to implement this merger, which was the largest ever attempted between two community foundations in the USA, possibly even the world.

When we merged, our asset size was about $1.4bn, and today we are over $6.5bn. This is a staggering increase, and over the last 5 years alone we have given out $1.5bn in gifts. In 2013, we awarded 12,000 gifts to non-profit organisations is 39 countries.  In 2014, we awarded 65,000 gifts to non-profit organisations in 56 countries.

SVCF’s mission really hasn’t changed since our founding – it’s set out in our vision. The merger wasn’t about achieving economies of scale; it was done because a combined organisation could have more influence on important social issues affecting our regional community, thus better serving our donors. We understood that ‘community’ for our donors could mean their neighbourhood, their city, their nation or the world.  The board wanted to build an institution that could ‘meet donors where they were’.

I think the very best community foundations reflect the communities in which they live. In Silicon Valley, we live in a community in which people are developing devices and apps that interconnect the world. Donors would expect the community foundation that they support to be able to allow them to connect with the world. Many people working here weren’t born or raised in Silicon Valley – they often want to help both their new home and their old home. We think we’re being a successful community foundation by serving our donors’ multifaceted needs. The world is generally more interconnected, so the concept of community is changing and the definition from centuries ago of a well-defined and small geographical area is no longer what most people want due to 21st century realities.

SVCF works with a number of corporate partners and individuals to accomplish their local, national and global philanthropic goals and by doing this, we are proving the elasticity of community. We can be hyper-local, but we also have the infrastructure and capacity to help donors do national and international projects. People want their philanthropic partner to help them fulfil their charitable interests wherever they may be and SVCF helps them to do this by being a turn-key ‘one-stop-shop.’ 

Global citizens are simultaneously part of multiple communities. The concept of community still exists, but it’s an expanding and contracting concept depending on which ‘hat’ each of us is wearing at a particular moment in time. If we can’t adapt to meet people’s needs, then we are not being effective. 

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Giving is an acquired skillset. Like art, your tastes will mature and your interests will become more refined over time. 

How often does the Community Foundation receive gifts of $1m or more? What are some common motivations for these very large gifts?

We regularly have access to people giving at this level and beyond. I would add that are minimum to start a fund is $5,000 which often surprises people.  There’s a belief that resources are easily available in Silicon Valley. Actually the wealthier the donor, the more options they have and the less cost becomes a deciding factor.  The higher their net worth, the less the decision is about cost and the more it’s about finding the right vehicle, the right institution to help them do what they believe is important.

I find that successful people have an extreme sense of responsibility. They feel they’ve been blessed. They are mostly not silver spoon people; they earned their wealth, they did things that people thought impossible and that took a lot of work. They came out the other side and became extraordinarily successful. This gives them this weight of responsibility. I think they use giving as a way to address it – they feel they have been blessed for a reason, and they want to work with an organisation that can help them to give back in the best possible way. They also have an infectious impatience – they don’t want to wait for results, they want to be involved and understand what’s happening with the money. They’re okay with failure; they want to learn from it. They want continuous improvement, that’s why they’re successful – their world is full of iterative processes where they learn and make things better, and they want to find partner organisations and non-profit organisations that also want to learn.

You’ve spoken about some of the difficulties of attracting donors when they have so many options. Have you found that some of your recent large and well-publicised gifts have helped to raise the profile of the foundation?  

Certainly you can’t underestimate the impact when smart, high profile people choose SVCF and tell people that they’ve chosen us.

People like this also talk to each other, so word of mouth is hugely important – their advisers talk to each other too. I see them as building blocks of credibility – every gift gives us more credibility in different circles with different people.

It also helps when the grantees know that the gift has come from us or via us – they remember who is helping them, so they want to know what else we do. Community foundations as a whole do well because we find donors are proud to let people know what they’re doing, and who they’re working with. I don’t know if this is true with other donor advised fund providers.

My long-term hope is that through our success and that of others in this space, community foundations that are not as large or well-known can use SVCF’s profile to help gain recognition for their work and the sector as a whole. Every community foundation benefits from high profile gifts to any community foundation. 

To what extent do you find that donors specify the end recipients, already having decided which organisations they want their gifts to support?

We have over 2,600 donor relationships so it’s really challenging to be specific. Sometimes they have a clear idea of what they want to support, for example their alma mater; sometimes they are completely open; sometimes they know the field they want to support, e.g., education, but want our help finding organisations and projects that will make an impact. Sometimes they want a mission statement, sometimes they’re established in a strategy and just want us to help them continue. There’s a whole spectrum, every individual and family is different.

How do your donors measure success? How much do they want to be involved?

Again, it depends on the donor and what stage they are at in their thinking, or perhaps in their life.

People who are unmarried have a different risk tolerance to those who are married. Those who are still working are different from those who have perhaps retired or exited a company. All these things and more will affect how much a person wants to be ‘hands-on’ and the type of engagement they want to have.

Some people want evaluative evidence in real time, while others believe if something is right then the data will eventually show it to be the case. There are many cancers for which we don’t have an effective cure – does that mean we should stop researching? No. Sometimes the standard logic doesn’t work and different donors have different timescales within which they expect to see results.

We help them figure out what’s important to them, and to calibrate their reporting requirements according to the level of their gift. Those giving larger gifts tend to want to be more involved, and they can expect a greater level of detail in the reporting.  Sometimes they have different interests, or different levels of willingness to trust the grantee to do the work well without needing to be involved day-to-day.   We are able to identify donors’ charitable interests in a 1 hour session through a proprietary process called the ‘Heart of Giving.’

Have you ever thought a donation would be better made through another organisation and not through yourselves?

Our mission is “innovative philanthropic solutions to challenging problems, helping our donors locally and around the world”. Do we say ‘no’ to things? Yes we do, but the range of things we say ‘yes’ to is very comprehensive.

We’re not here to stop donors from making their ideas about improving the world a reality.  It might not be how we’d prioritise spending the money, but the joy of giving is seeing different ideas implemented and achieved.   

We will only intervene if we think something will do harm, when it’s not about lifting people up but about putting people down, perhaps restricting opportunities for others. The good news is that donors with that mindset don’t tend to come looking for us because they see the things we support and they don’t want to give us power over their granting – therefore there is some degree of self-selection. We do say ‘no’ to things that we think will do harm or where we find through our due diligence that we can’t confirm that the non-profit organisation is legitimate.

We don’t make value judgements about what people want to support – they might have different views than our own, but we look at the motivation and decide whether it’s going to do good. 

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It’s about finding the right vehicle, the right institution to help donors do what they believe is important. 

You’ve been at the foundation since the beginning.  What are some key lessons learned by you and by the foundation throughout its history?

If you want to do something worthwhile and achieve change, you will have to go through a process – there will be some irrational responses from otherwise rational people who have become comfortable with the status quo, and that will happen even if you’re doing things for the right reasons.

You have to distinguish between negative reactions to a bad decision, and negative reactions to good decisions which simply demonstrate how much people care about the issue and the organisations.   

You will always encounter some resistance to change, so you have to be prepared to work through it and make sound judgements about why it’s happening. Too often people are paralysed and refuse to act because not everyone agrees. I’m not in this job for consensus. I see the non-profit community as venture partners, not customers. The community is the customer that I’m here to serve, and I’m looking for the best partner, or combination of partners, to help me improve the life of the community and provide opportunities with the best benefit for the best price.

I’ve also learned that we never know it all or even most of what we would like to know. Information is democratised and at our technological fingertips, so the scale of what we need to know has become even bigger.  Increasingly the challenge for community foundations will be sorting the vast amount of information into something relevant and digestible for donors and other community members.  All of us can find things out in ways we never had access to before.  This changes the balance of knowledge and power. We bring our donors into relationship with the community, we share our knowledge and experience, bring them together with organisations or individuals and partners with similar interests, and this perhaps allows them to be more successful. Philanthropy is the only space that I feel hasn’t fully understood how technology has changed things and it must therefore learn to adapt. It’s an exciting opportunity for us.

What are the foundation’s plans for the future?

Put simply: Do good. We have created and we work to maintain a really nimble organisation that can go into new areas, help donors to give to things that haven’t necessarily been given to before, and  to support the same causes in new ways. That’s something we’ve focused on since the merger.  

What can be done to grow and strengthen philanthropy in the USA?

It’s so important that people get to choose what they support, what aligns with their values and what they really care about. They should be encouraged to support philanthropy in whatever form is right for them. We can’t say that certain causes are more important or better than others. It’s dangerous if the government wants to create different incentives which suggest that certain issues are more or less important than others. Philanthropy represents uniquely individual and personal choices and people need to be allowed that freedom. I don’t think this sort of differentiation results in more being given to the causes that are promoted, and it would certainly harm those that are not.

I worry that we generally do not understand that philanthropy is fundamentally an expression of democracy. There are proposals that suggest some philanthropy is better than other types, and ought to be treated better or differently. I think that misses the point.

I support the causes I want to privately, but at work I help the donors to support the causes they want to – even if they aren’t aligned with those I would choose for myself. I don’t want to see a narrowing or removal of that democracy. It’s what distinguishes American philanthropy.

What advice would you have for people who at the start of their philanthropy journey?

Giving is an acquired skillset. Like art, your tastes will mature and your interests will become more refined over time.

People should just start, and over time they will evolve and adapt their approach as they do it. It’s an iterative process, and that’s how you find your niche. The ‘sweet spot’ will be different for everyone – it will be where you feel you’re getting the most satisfaction.

Enjoy it and learn from it, and recognise that it’s going to evolve. You also don’t have to pick one area – you can, but philanthropy doesn’t require that. You can pick 20 areas or one.  But whatever you do, don’t decide not to have any charitable interests, you will miss out on the opportunity to help others and on all of the fun!