There is a thread to be followed here between this new generation of wealthy individuals, the charities that need their money, and the crises that those organizations work to resolve. As Alana Semuels wrote in The Atlantic, the changing of the guard around wealth has rippled down to nonprofits. Much of this stems from how charities are now expected to pitch themselves, to speak a new language of metrics, scale, and impact, “forcing nonprofits to become incubators and disruptors.”
In her book Policy Patrons, Megan E. Tompkins-Stange says the Gates Foundation tends “to frame problems in a ‘technical’ fashion, preferring to address social issues that have a clear solution and where a causal link exists between the problem and the results, consistent with the norms of engineering as a discipline.” The logic follows that philanthropists will draw on the culture of their business when they approach charity work, whether the target is education, health care, housing, or the refugee crisis. What this means for nonprofits in those areas, however, is that they have to learn to speak a new lingo.
If an organization can do this, they can unlock funding. For grassroots projects that aren’t as familiar with this new language, it can be a struggle. The Giving Code, a 2016 report on Silicon Valley philanthropy, found that only around 10% of philanthropic funding from the area goes to local causes, and the majority of that is to universities and hospitals. For a community-based organization that’s trying to address the area’s severe homelessness problem, for example, applying for this money can be made more challenging “by the fact that Silicon Valley’s new philanthropists don’t always behave the way traditional philanthropists do—and because most nonprofit leaders are not familiar with the emerging ‘giving code’ that drives their choices.”
It’s not only nonprofits in Silicon Valley that need to learn this new language. In the U.K., for example, organizations such as the Center for Acceleration of Social Technology (CAST) have emerged as an intermediary between funders and nonprofits, helping the latter make “innovative uses of technology to address social change” and understand how digital product development can help attract funding. On the other side of the money, CAST works with funders to help them best understand how technology needs to be guided by experts with years of experience in the areas being “disrupted.” It’s crucial, they argue, that the new language of charity doesn’t only go in one direction.
“Historically, people have given away their money in ways that reflect the ways the money was made.”
“There’s a lot of goodwill, of people doing things with the best intentions, but it needs better coordination,” co-founder and director Annika Small OBE tells me. “You have people who have a deep understanding of the complexities around a social issue, but they aren’t necessarily drawn in at the right time, when big tech is looking at how it might direct some of its resources to an issue. How do you create something that’s more cohesive?”
CAST wants to recognize that this new funding landscape is here to stay and to make sure that charities understand the new expectations of funders. At the same time, funders have to understand the value of working with organizations that have a deep knowledge of complex social issues—something complicated by a new generation of philanthropists blurring the lines between business and charity, and perhaps even seeing their own profit-driven business as a force for social good.
“How many really have a primary aim of social good?” Small says. “Mostly they are still there to make a profit. But where they are moving toward engaging those sorts of discussions, it is critical that the charity sector, and social enterprise more generally, have a voice and are connected to them. Otherwise there really is a danger.”
A danger of what? Of technology-driven interventions where grassroots social work is needed? Of private companies instead of governments bringing about systemic change? As Small notes, there is a seemingly genuine desire from the likes of Zuckerberg and Gates to do good in their philanthropy, just as Musk was ostensibly trying to help with his miniature submarine. But it is crucial that voices of experience are listened to and that there is accountability to the public.
In the case of the Thai cave rescue, Musk’s offer was turned away in favor of the specialized skills and methodical approach of divers. The irony could well be that, in the long term, nonprofits doing similar work in disaster areas will need to bend their thinking toward that of a tech titan.