The network technology company I founded went public in 1990. Previously, my wife Carol and I had not given much beyond $100 checks to direct mail appeals; now we could give in the thousands and tens of thousands.
The breakthrough in our philanthropy in both time and money happened in 1993 when we got involved in an innovative project being hatched by Stanford University's Medical Center to foster cross-disciplinary, non-organ-centric, research and clinical studies in immunology. We were asked to help bring together supporters to convince the university to proceed with this new and novel approach. We agreed to help out -- our daughter had severe rheumatoid arthritis since age two. After three years of meetings, the university finally wholeheartedly endorsed this new center (Center for Clinical Immunology at Stanford University) and embraced the philosophy.
The next thing we knew, the president of the university asked us to meet with him, and he proceeded to ask us for a multi-million gift to kick off fundraising for the new center. The president pitched that it would help enormously in attracting other large gifts. Being new to the capital gifts game, Carol and I just looked at each other. This was far more than ten times what we had ever given in the past. We must have been naive, because we didn't see this coming! We gulped and agreed to a $2 million pledge. It was quite a shock! But once the shock wore off, we felt wonderful, pleased and very proud.
For over 15 years we have been giving well beyond 100% of our income, roughly $1 million a year. We set up a supporting foundation which pays 6% out of a corpus of $17 million. Personally, I think this is not aggressive enough; I would prefer to spend down the assets over 20-30 years. However, we want to ensure that our son and his wife get a sense of their horizon for active philanthropic engagement before deciding. Not every generation has equal time and interest to work in philanthropy; it's serious work.
My interests include museums, art education, scientific research organizations, and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. Carol is more engaged with university boards, the Jewish Community Federation, and community organizations. Right now she is leading a campaign that has already raised over $134 million in donations for a combined community center and independent senior residence for our town.
One of our challenges has been to avoid over-committing large multi-year gifts so there is no money left when new projects come up. I am troubled that many successful individuals translate their business approach to philanthropy, giving only to one or two projects where they can measure the rate of return. They call it “focused giving” and while it may have some merit, they neglect giving to smaller projects in their own communities. I'm disappointed that they do not positively respond to requests from me or from their colleagues, missing out on the thinking and due diligence we have done. For me, it is quite efficient to support projects recommended by friends I respect.
We don't have anywhere near the top wealth in Silicon Valley. But I know that people think we have a lot more than we do, because we are generous and we give to many worthy local causes.
I see many who could give much more than they do. They seem to have the attitude that paying taxes or giving away money is like having it stolen from their pockets or ripped from their flesh. A philanthropic ask feels like a trip to the dentist for them. Taxes and philanthropy are both contributions we gladly choose to do. Once we mustered the courage to make gradually bigger philanthropic commitments as part of our increased community engagement, it was amazing how much greater the joy and pleasure we have gotten in return. And it keeps growing!