Questions Persist at Silicon Valley Community Foundation

Luz Bratcher / existential

August 1, 2018; Bristol Herald Courier

In the wake of the workplace harassment scandal at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF), and as it prepares to elect new leadership in the wake of founding president Emmet Carson’s resignation, SCVF is hearing from local nonprofits asking for input into the charity’s future direction.

In a letter to the foundation’s board, the Silicon Valley Council of Nonprofits writes, “Many of our members expressed specific concerns around the foundation’s strategy with donor advised funds and the need to encourage donors to give locally into programs that address poverty, health, transportation, environment, and other basic needs.” Many of our readers likely already know that the foundation was recently raked over the coals in the Atlantic, which suggested that those donor-advised funds (also known as DAFs) are at the root of the problem at SVCF.

Additionally, other publications like The Giving Code, a study produced in 2016 on Silicon Valley philanthropy at a more general level, conclude that many nonprofits perceive that it is harder to see into or access donor-advised funds for purposes of fundraising. More profoundly, when the ultra-rich are the donors and the foundation is not actively facilitating local relationships, problems naturally crop up—problems that call into question the very designation of community foundations.

Greg Avis, SVCF’s interim chief executive, says that the institution is the largest funder of Bay Area nonprofits. Still, by his own estimation, area organizations received only a third of charitable grants, or $436 million of the $1.3 billion awarded by SVCF last year. He reiterated a point made many times by Carson, which reflects an orientation towards the donor as the primary customer.

“We assist donors in achieving their charitable goals,” said Avis, “whether those goals involve supporting charities here in Silicon Valley, across the country or around the world.” That orientation, along with a heavy emphasis on institutional growth, has attracted internal and external criticism over the years. Is this, asked some critics, what community foundations were established to do? On the other hand, a good portion of this money has been made from worldwide markets. To which community does the foundation owe its accountability? Is it really only made up of donors as primary stakeholders?

Most of the institution’s record-setting growth has been in the form of donor-advised funds, which essentially leave decision-making in the hands of donors. Because of that, changing course would be a real pivot and probably would carry with it some risks of donor loss and a great deal of work. But maybe it is time for all of that.

“The foundation was fortunate to have been in Silicon Valley when a lot of people became very wealthy—the right place at the right time,” said Erica Bleicher, who recently worked as a development officer at SVCF. But maybe now it needs to consider its real purpose in that community and the world.

A few years ago, NPQ’s Steve Dubb, writing in Shelterforce, noted that many other community foundations have taken a different path than SVCF and have decided that it is more strategically wise to “‘double down’ on their commitment to build local community wealth, both to [address community needs and] to differentiate themselves from investment firm competitors.”

In short, a little reflection about organizational values and priorities before searching for that new executive might be just what is needed.

Patricia Gardner, chief executive of the Silicon Valley Council of Nonprofits, hopes the foundation’s leadership reboot will shift focus back to local giving. “We believe they’re listening,” Gardner said. “But we’ll continue to ask, how about investing in the local community in a bigger, stronger way? We need them be successful.”—Ruth McCambridge