Re-envisioning Venture Philanthropy

Photo Credit: Gene Wilburn

This summer in Martha’s Vineyard I read a lengthy piece in the New Yorker about Marc Andreessen of the illustrious Silicon Valley venture capital house, A16Z. I have friends in Silicon Valley, and make my way out there about once a year. From my New England vantage, Silicon Valley seems a world off in the clouds — pleasant, but ephemeral. Where I’m from, we have stone walls built ten generations ago.

I read works from more ancient landscapes than my home as well. The Dark Mountain Project is a biannual periodical out of the UK of uncivilized art. I’ve been a subscriber since the spring, and have just started reading the latest one, Issue Eight. One of the essays it contains is titled “Planting Trees in the Anthropocene,” by Paul Kingsnorth, a cofounder of the publication. He gets into Kevin Kelly’s [Wired’s founding executive editor] religious concept of the “technium” — technology as an organism unto itself. I’ve been writing about money as a world-conquering form of artificial intelligence for years. So looking at technology as an organism feels familiar to me.

Where it gets interesting for me is in what we call sacred. Silicon Valley worships physical and information technologies. Permaculture worships natural and social technologies. I do think that “hi-tech” has its place; I’m not calling for the end of technology [when I don’t specify what technology I’m referring to, I mean hi-tech]. That’s why Dark Mountain has titled its most recent issue “Technê,” referring to the Greek word meaning craft; it explores the subtleties of the technology continuum.

There’s much I could critique about Andreesson and the Silicon Valley hi-tech religion. But instead I’d like to elevate some of the pattern language from Venture Capital that could be of utility in other contexts.

Fund People —Whereas philanthropy generally focuses on non-profits, VC often focuses on people and teams.

Visionary People — VC culture idolizes the visionary. Marc Andreesson, Kevin Kelly, and Ray Kurzweil all epitomize the Silicon Valley Crazy Person. And I don’t mean to criticize them when I call them crazy. I’m using the word to denote statistical deviation from average beliefs of “reality.” I too am crazy, but in a different direction. Not that VC has been funding these guys, but these guys have been directing VC dollars into the ideas they’d like to manifest.

Spend the Money — VC is an outgrowth of wealth inequality. Only a small percentage of the entities they fund ever provide a financial return. Basically 95% of VC notes end up in the form of anxiety-inducing gifts, and 5% equity. Venture philanthropy could be one road towards wealth redistribution. The VC model doesn’t interest itself with viable businesses, instead they focus on perpetual acquisition. This is the definition of speculation [as opposed to investment]. Projects like the Giving Pledge illustrate that there’s lots of money to give away [just the world’s billionaires have in excess of $5 trillion in cumulative assets that they could redistribute]; but most of this giving isn’t looking to pioneer new models, only new technologies.

Venture philanthropy [Wikipedia, Slate] is a term that’s been around since at least the first Tech Bubble of the 1990s. As far as I can tell, venture philanthropy has been mimicking VC in the sense that it has been funding hi-tech [such as vaccines], rather than funding visionary cultural concepts. I’ve been unimpressed; I think it’s time for a pivot. Whereas Venture Capital funds hi-tech, Venture Philanthropy could step in to fund social technology. An excellent example of this would be with Unconditional Basic Income [UBI]. Scott Santens wrote an overview of the concept here on Medium. Conventionally, UBI has been considered the purview of government, do to the financial scale it requires. But it’s a perfect project for venture philanthropy to pilot in the private sector.

I like the Silicon Valley Crazy People, but I think that a strong future rests on a diversity of crazy ideas. Silicon Valley has technium groupthink, and VC is bringing this technium potential into existence. Venture philanthropy needs to step up its game to bring the same degree of worship of humanity and nature than VC brings to technology. We too can manifest the impossible.