One Nerd’s Take on the Future of Philanthropy

One Nerd’s Take on the Future of Philanthropy

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You don’t need to make a killing to make a difference.

The current models of big philanthropy focus on accumulating massive wealth, followed by the charitable contribution of a very small percentage of that wealth. I’ve practiced a different model, one that’s focused on a commitment to fairness and doing right by others. My philosophy has two basic tenets: First, stay focused on making a difference rather than making a killing. Second, as Kevin Spacey has said, if you’re lucky enough to do well, keep sending the elevator back down.

the_nation

In 1997, my hobby — something called craigslist — was doing well enough that folks representing Microsoft Sidewalk offered me significant cash to run banner ads. I figured that I was already doing well enough as a contract software developer and reflected on what I used to call my “nerd values” — namely, that one should make enough to care for family, friends, and oneself (with the occasional luxury thrown in), and that one should do something to make a difference.

I declined Microsoft’s offer.

In early 1999, venture capitalists and bankers suggested a conventional monetization strategy for craigslist. If I adopted one, they promised to invest lavishly in my company. But since I’d already done very well, I figured enough was enough. Most likely, the people posting ads on craigslist could spend their money better than I could. They were better off keeping it to support their families rather than starting to pay me for a service that had been free, thereby increasing my profits, and then hoping I’d give back by making charitable contributions.

The minimal monetization of our site meant no huge windfall profits. And it’s been just fine.

That no-making-a-killing approach evolved into a business model that you might call “doing well by doing good.” The good was a free, accessible marketplace that helped people buy a table, put food on that table, and find a roof to put the table under.

And even as I was doing well for family, friends, and myself, I was sending the elevator back down. With my philanthropic initiative, craigconnects.org, I can find good people accomplishing good things and then help them by offering ongoing social-media support and my personal involvement. Cash and photo ops are easy (and important), but the ongoing involvement is more serious. I’m currently involved in working with veterans and military families, boosting women in tech, supporting voting rights where they’re at risk, increasing peer-to-peer funding, and backing worthwhile journalism, since as I’ve argued in the past, a trustworthy press is “the immune system of democracy.”

This combination of ethical business practices (treating people the way I’d like to be treated on the way up) and philanthropic contributions (sending that elevator back down) is my effort to reflect the simple sense of fairness I learned as a kid. I think it’s a pretty good model for a new philanthropy, and I hope that others in Silicon Valley join me.

This article first appeared in the Nation magazine.
Photo Illustration by Tim Robinson; featured in The Nation

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8 Comments

Michelle Glauser

Hi Craig, you're doing great things! Do you know who built the Women's Annex Foundation's website? It looks like it redirects to womensannexfoudnation.org, and their contact form has white on white text.

Frank Hajek

Excellent, simple article about the ethics of doing well in business. We have to do good as we create wealth, not only as a final contribution. Hoping your call to Silicon Valley is answered :).

Luni Libes

Hi Craig,

I'm speaking about philanthropy vs doing good within for profits at my next two weekly webinars. Wednesday, 8am PT. If you have time to join in the conversation, I'd love my audience to hear your views.

See fledge.co/webinars for the registration link.

Ryan Nece

Craig – This is a wonderful blog…thank you for sharing. My family has been in the world of sports and tech our entire life. But we have learned that nothing is more rewarding than the Power of Giving and this is a mantra that we live by today.

Tami

Great post!
I had the pleasure of meeting you at Fast Company's Community at Work Summit years ago in Colorado. I love that you're turning your good fortune into good for others. I founded my company in 2002 to transform the way companies approach Community Engagement and Communication Strategy.

Chris

Big philanthropy is about big egos, not about doing good things.

If we all stopped hoarding money and things there would be more to go around for everyone, so your "doing enough" lifestyle contributes silently as well. This silent contribution that people like us make is personally unrewarding but spiritually fullfiling.

Thanks for using your clout to put this out into the culture.

Kris

We are on the same page, my friend. Your leadership and innovation have always inspired me since "the days" in SF during the dot-com boom that was both fun and crazy at once and when craigslist was a baby. So happy for all of your success and grateful for the Good you put into the world. Now I am in Colorado and have a little company that I know you would love…check it out, http://www.BeGoodtoPeople.com I messaged you and would love to reconnect. Keep up the Good work! :-)

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