Corporate Philanthropy’s Mixed Motivations; Airbnb and Homelessness in NYC

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July 1, 2016; Forbes

Airbnb is putting up a small stake in ending homelessness in New York City through a partnership with WIN. The former Women in Need, with a 2014 budget of more than $49 million, is one of the city’s largest nonprofits fighting homelessness. As always, however, when it comes to corporate donations, the tradeoffs of the gift should be noted.

Airbnb will donate $100,000 to the organization led by former NYC councilwoman Christine Quinn. (Nationally, Airbnb is valued at around $25 billion.) In addition, it is planning to engage the hosts and guests of its online platform in trained volunteer efforts to provide resume building and job skills to homeless women and families. Airbnb will deploy its own staff as volunteers, presumably providing plenty of photo ops.

New York City’s homelessness problem is growing, with more than 55,000 homeless individuals—80 percent of whom are homeless families, the demographic that WIN targets. “[WIN] erases the myth about homeless New Yorkers, and replaces them [sic] with the truth—that these moms are working hard every day to make sure their children have a better future,” said Quinn.

The investment, however, comes during the height of a housing policy battle with NYC, where local politicians from both sides of the aisle passed a bill that, if signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo, would fine Airbnb users who rent out an entire home for less than thirty days. The push to limit Airbnb’s expansion in New York has been led by a variety of interests, including the hotel lobby and affordable housing organizations, which argue that Airbnb hosts are operating illegal hotels and reducing the stock of affordable housing in the city. Currently, the city’s apartment vacancy rate is at 3.45 percent, which is considered a housing crisis. Airbnb has been urging lawmakers to help find a common ground for middle class New Yorkers, arguing that the powerful hotel lobby is overstating the impact of Airbnb for its own purposes.

In this latest skirmish of a battle also being waged in Airbnb’s home city of San Francisco, the sharing economy giant is likely using a modest nonprofit investment as part of an attempt to secure its place in the NYC market, with all the attendant social benefit language. “WIN’s work helping those most in need, and deeply understands that permanent housing is a vital link to strong communities,” said Josh Meltzer, the company’s head of public policy in New York.—Danielle Holly and Ruth McCambridge

  • Jenna

    This sounds a little critical of Air BNB.. if they can leverage their support to help their strategy and that of a nonprofit doing great work, I think that can only be a good thing. Air BNB is helping middle class families bring in extra income where other companies are failing to provide adequate pay increases. People should be allowed to do what they want with their homes without fines stemming from complaints from greedy big businesses. They are also a very talked about company right now, and if they can get charity in the headlines, I think they’re doing something right. Yes, they could probably do more. But it’s a start!

  • Mary Hughes

    I am disappointed that Nonprofit Quarterly would report on a Forbes article about Airbnb’s corporate philanthropy partnership with WIN in the opinionated manner it did without naming the piece an editorial and without having the authors’, one of whom is the editor in chief and should know better, state their opinions clearly. In fairness, their single mention of the hotel lobby’s involvement in pushing for New York and San Francisco legislation limiting Airbnb’s and homeowners’ posting and rental activities is more than the original Forbes article itself notes. However, resorting twice to playground-worthy taunts, such as Airbnb “is likely using a modest nonprofit investment as part of an attempt to secure its place in the NYC market, with all the attendant social benefit language” is beneath the dignity of Nonprofit Quarterly and its readers. If the authors thought WIN was naive, duped, or blinded by money when they accepted the Airbnb gift, they should have stated it clearly and made their case. Moreover, to begrudge a company its corporate philanthropy, because the authors deem its amount to be “modest” and to further disparage the company for the fact that the attendant voluntarism effort will “presumably” provide “plenty of photo-ops” is the sort of insult that makes corporations want to take their profits and go home to distribute them exclusively to shareholders. The article could have served readers far better: it invaluably reminded us that “when it comes to corporate donations, the tradeoffs of the gift should be noted,” and it explained that here the tradeoff was the timing of the gift, coming “during the height of a housing policy battle.” The inclusion of snide remarks cheapened the opportunity NPQ had to engage nonprofits in their own consideration of criteria they would use to evaluate potentially controversial gifts and alliances, as well as the need to evaluate appearances as well as facts.