Introducing 13 Fund
A Joint Venture in Angel Philanthropy
We’re donating $100k in unrestricted funds to charitable causes over the next 4 years. Here’s why and how we’re approaching it.
Thirteen years ago, Bilal Mahmood and I met in undergrad at Stanford. We joined an effort to raise funds for microfinance and together built and ran a nonprofit organization to fight global poverty. Since that first endeavor, we have remained friends, intellectual sparring partners, and avid anime fans, despite living on opposite sides of the country.
In the first half of 2020, we were both able to successfully exit the startups we had founded in the analytics and gaming spaces. But while we’re both deeply grateful for the increased financial stability after years of sweat and struggle, this experience juxtaposed against the political and economic realities of our communities in 2020 has been deeply worrying.
San Francisco and New York City, the cities where we have lived and built our companies, have seen the already wide chasm of inequality expand further as COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted sectors and roles that aren’t able to leverage digital and internet technologies.
Bars, restaurants, theaters — the heart of our culture — face irreparable loss. The pain and anguish of the ongoing racial injustice has only worsened. And amidst this all, many of our cities’ wealthy residents have fled to other cities and states, depriving the local community of their patronage.
In tech, folks who gain some level of wealth either through founding a company or being an early employee, tend to start angel investing, buying small stakes in early stage startups. On the other hand, a lot of attention and headlines about major philanthropic giving focuses on gifts to museums, performing arts, or universities.
Given the realities of 2020, we wanted to do something different. Something more akin to angel philanthropy. Something that combines the hands-on, smaller check, and higher risk elements of angel investing with the focus on public good of philanthropy. We know we’re not the first to identify this approach, but we don’t see many of peers taking this route and we wanted to talk through it.
As entrepreneurs, we founded organizations because we believed we could create a better world. We saw opportunities where others did not, and we were willing to take a risk and apply our insights and grit to do important work to create significant value. Now we hope to do that again through our giving efforts.
Introducing 13 Fund
Today we are announcing the launch of 13 Fund. 13 Fund is both 1) a pledge to stay in San Francisco and New York and 2) a vehicle to invest in promising opportunities in the communities that have allowed us to thrive.
Through this announcement, we are committing to donate $50,000 each over the next 4 years (totalling $100k between the two of us) in charitable organizations we believe can have an impact on causes we care about. We are making this pledge publicly so that we can be held accountable to our commitment and in hopes of inspiring our peers in tech who have accumulated some level of wealth.
Our name pays homage to Benjamin Franklin and the thirteen virtues he articulated and sought to live by throughout his life. We are inspired by Franklin’s career as a scientist, inventor, philosopher, and political leader. Not only was he a Founding Father of the United States, which means a lot to us as children of immigrants, but he established important civic institutions like the Library Company, Philadelphia’s first fire department, and the University of Pennsylvania.
Franklin had his flaws, not least of which include owning slaves, though he did write publicly against slavery later in life. Still, in many ways Franklin’s curiosity, persistence, and dedication to personal and civic improvement represent to us the model of an ideal citizen.
13 is also the number of years Bilal and I have known each other, a prime and Fibonacci number, the constitutional amendment that abolished slavery, the botched Apollo mission which, through ingenuity and teamwork, brought the crew home safely. Suffice to say, we think 13 is an auspicious and excellent number.
Below we will share our model of angel philanthropy and the causes we aim to support in the spirit of transparency and accountability. For those who are considering angel philanthropy for themselves, we encourage you to develop your own approach and set of criteria.
Over the past few months, we discussed and debated our approach together and later in consultation with our brilliant friend Sophia Tu, a former executive at the IBM Foundation. Those vigorous discussions led to 13 Fund’s five-fold approach to angel philanthropy:
1. Give strategically: We believe that it’s important to understand more about the problems, solutions, and organizations you give to. As with traditional angel investing, giving should be informed by diligence. For each of the issues we identify, we will interview experts, practitioners, and impacted individuals to understand the biggest problems and opportunities in the field before choosing organizations to fund. We will then run a lightweight application process to identify organizations that are best equipped to address the opportunities we found.
2. Give publicly: Startup investors have investment theses and deal memos. Similarly, we will document our research into a problem area through a synthesis paper before seeking out the best organization poised to tackle the problem. Because of this data-intensive approach, we plan to invest in only 2 new organizations each year. We’re not going to get it right every time, so sharing our thinking publicly may help surface new information that will improve our approach, and also may encourage other angel philanthropists to “follow-on” our investment.
3. Give locally: Recognizing the heightened impact the current economic downturn has had on our respective communities, we’re pledging to focus our investments to organizations with focused efforts in San Francisco and New York City. We have been citizens and members of these communities for many years, and as members of the tech community benefited greatly from the culture, community, and people. We feel it’s our civic duty to stay and give back.
4. Give unrestricted: A lot of foundations have strings attached to their gifts, tying up how an organization can use their funds. Meanwhile, individuals often give once a year or sporadically, which is hard for nonprofits to anticipate. Our approach is to pre commit to giving a combined $1,000 in unrestricted funds to selected organizations on a monthly basis for at least a year. This enables organizations to use funds in the way they see fit and better plan their finances. All donations will be executed via a donor-advised fund via Silicon Valley Community Foundation and we will publish our reports on an ongoing basis.
5. Give to underdogs: Big organizations and big causes often score the majority of the funding. This makes it difficult for causes that are less known but of equal if not greater importance to solicit donations, or for organizations that are more locally oriented to garner attention. We seek to give our money to nonprofits whose work may not be as well known — targeting organizations that are under 5 years old with annual budgets of less than $2M. At least one organization we consider every cycle must be led by a BIPOC person. We hope that through our campaign, we can bring the work of the best organizations in the space to light.
13 Fund will invest in causes that we’re personally passionate about and that affect our local communities. One thing we’re really excited about with this project is that we’ll get a chance to really dig into these areas, speak with experts, and learn a lot in the process. We’re also curious people with a lot of passions so we’ll be expanding and evolving this list of issues over time, but here are some we plan to start with:
- Small business development — this is obviously a major issue facing businesses across the country, but in particular small businesses have fewer safety nets and have struggled tremendously during the pandemic
- Affordable housing and homelessness — how we ensure that people in our communities have access to housing and don’t lose access to that housing is something that affects both our cities and that we need to urgently address
- Mass incarceration — far too many people in this country are in prison for non-violent crimes (especially drug related) and that has had an especially negative impact on communities of color.
- 13 Fund has begun research on our first issue: small business development, focusing on mitigating the impact of COVID-19 lockdown measures.
- We will be publishing our findings on this issue before the end of the year and expect to announce our first grant recipient (based in San Francisco) in early 2021.
- We will follow up with our next issue, affordable housing, and select our second grant recipient (based in NYC) later in 2021.
We believe this twice-a-year cadence alternating between cities and issues will allow us to continue at a sustainable level for this nights-and-weekends project outside of our full-time employment.
About 13 Fund
13 Fund was set up by Bilal Mahmood and Jason Shen. Long-time friends and tech founders, they met originally in undergrad at Stanford as biology majors who started a nonprofit together. In the subsequent decade they vociferously discussed the role of entrepreneurship, technology, public service in fostering the public good as we worked in the Obama Administration and the tech industry. As part of 13 Fund, they are committing to donate $100,000 collectively over 4 years, to support SF and NYC-based causes.