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Techies can appear slow to embrace philanthropy

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Philanthropic agencies last month eagerly anticipated Facebook's initial public stock offering, which tech industry analysts said might create some 850 new millionaires.

They hoped they'd get to "like" some of the newfound wealth, too.

While the early performance of the stock has fallen below expectations, anticipation remains high in the non-profit community.

"There are a lot of people who are philanthropy-watchers who are looking to see what's going to come of all of this money," says Leslie Lenkowsky, professor of philanthropic studies at The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

In a February guest column in The San Jose Mercury News in California, E. Chris Wilder, executive director of the Valley Medical Center Foundation in San Jose, encouraged any new Facebook millionaires and billionaires to share with non-profits and charities in the community. He noted that compared with other metropolitan areas, California's Silicon Valley "underperforms when it comes to giving."

The numbers support his opinion. According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, only two of the 20 most generous individual donors in the USA last year are from the technology world — Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and eBay founder and Chairman Pierre Omidyar and his wife, Pam.

"Their hearts are not here yet," Wilder told USA TODAY. "They are not from Silicon Valley — so many folks are from somewhere else — and that's where their hearts are. They may be giving to their alma mater or the country they were born in."

Giving patterns vary

Mixed approaches to philanthropy in the technology sector are longstanding. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, started by the Microsoft co-founder, is now the largest grant-maker in the USA, its $37.4 billion in assets more than triple those of the Ford Foundation, the next on the list, according to philanthropic analysts at the Foundation Center. Bill Gates also co-founded, with Warren Buffett, The Giving Pledge, encouraging America's wealthiest to pledge to give most of their fortunes to the charities of their choice during their lifetimes or when they die.

By contrast, the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs had virtually no public record of charitable giving, Lenkowsky said.

Internet companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter place strong emphasis on using their technological expertise as a way to give, said Margaret Coady, director of the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy, a Wall Street-based non-profit co-founded in 1999 by the late actor and philanthropist Paul Newman.

Google in recent years has touted its search engine's ability to track flu trends around the world. Its Google Person Finder saw more than 600,000 entries as people searched for missing loved ones after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in March 2011, said Shona Brown, senior vice president of Google's philanthropic arm,

"I love reading about what Google is doing with their search engine. And Facebook can put up a 'donate' button, and suddenly, you've got more people doing organ donations than you've ever had," Coady said.

Google hands out millions

Google, through its "dot-org" site, donated $115 million in grants and $1 billion in in-kind support to non-profits and academic institutions last year, Brown said. That included $40 million in grants focused on science, technology, engineering and math education; girls' education in developing countries; empowerment through technology; and fighting modern-day slavery and human-trafficking, she said.

But Lenkowsky said Facebook and Twitter "pretty much are non-players in the philanthropy world." Twitter declined to comment.

Some Facebook executives have made large donations on an individual basis, Lenkowsky said. Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg gained attention when he donated $100 million to struggling Newark public schools in 2010. That same year, Zuckerberg signed Gates' and Buffett's Giving Pledge.

As part of a deal with the Silicon Valley cities of East Palo Alto and Menlo Park to greatly expand its headquarters campus and the number of employees there, Facebook in April agreed to fund a $500 million local community fund to benefit local charities and will encourage employee volunteerism locally.

In late May, members of Facebook's IT team visited Menlo Park's Willow Oaks Elementary School after hearing about its technology problems and replaced outdated equipment with 31 Mac Minis and other technology, according to the company's Menlo Park Facebook site.

Because Internet companies generally have younger employees than those at other firms, that generation's sensibilities permeate their corporate charitable activity, Coady said.

"The Millennial generation and their expectations of community service and commitment generally cause them to ask, walking in the door, 'How are you letting me live my values at work? What are your policies on volunteerism? What are the giving priorities? I want to know how accountable you are to the community,' " she said. "They want to be involved; not necessarily just write a check."

Google's Brown said Silicon Valley philanthropists and companies are taking a more entrepreneurial approach to have greater impact.

"There are a lot of different approaches to doing good in the tech sector that go beyond traditional corporate giving, including non-profit partnerships, engineering projects and for-profit ventures," she said.

She cited Google's grant to Code for America, a Silicon Valley initiative that inspires tech whizzes to help governments become more innovative and Web-centric.

If Silicon Valley corporations give less to charity than traditional "blue chip" companies, it may have to do with the relatively rapid way they came by their success, Wilder said.

"A lot of the wealthy in Silicon Valley are newly wealthy," he said. "That money still feels a little too tenuous; still feels fleeting. And the economic downturn has reinforced that feeling."|newswell|text|News|s

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