This article was originally published in The Mercury News on Nov. 22, 2016.
There was good news in the Packard Foundation’s recent report, “The Giving Code.” Silicon Valley has new donors and more than double the support from corporations in the past six years, yet, it turns out, this is not enough. The needs of one-third of Silicon Valley’s residents cannot be met without public support, and the cost of delivering that support is on the rise.
Many marvel at this growing, unfulfilled need here in the midst of such wealth, identified as a “prosperity paradox.”
The report also identifies an “empathy gap” between nonprofits and philanthropists, a tendency for each to stereotype the motives and abilities of the other. Though tempting to move right to action items, Silicon Valley would be well served by some reflection first.At a recent luncheon honoring the fundraising abilities of nonprofits and philanthropists, the point was reinforced as a speaker scolded nonprofits for not understanding their donors and not using their social media products as a way to signal that they “get” how donors think. But the work really needs to be done by both donors and receivers, if empathy is going to be created.
Silicon Valley only started capturing business market share large enough to create lasting wealth 40 years ago, so its philanthropy is just maturing. Even with this maturity, I believe the empathy gap accounts for a meaningful portion of the prosperity paradox. We can close the empathy gap in other ways than simply waiting for Silicon Valley’s philanthropy to grow or nonprofits to “get” their donors.
The report suggests nonprofits create ways for board members to learn about the social sector. Perhaps a deeper data set on the availability of qualified board members to serve these community-based nonprofits would help.
I believe the sector suffers from a significant “governance gap”: not enough volunteer board members with time and interest in fully learning their own duties, both legally and ethically, let alone time or interest to learn more about the sector. In other words, many board members don’t invest in “getting” nonprofits. Since many nonprofits and philanthropists seemed enthralled with the notion that donors should be board members and vice versa, the gap will persist as the fundamental conflicts of the interests of donors and those overseeing organizations are rarely explored.
There is a tool—a framework for ethical decision-making developed at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics—that helps users gain empathetic perspective. It contributes by posing questions from ethical paradigms, fostering empathy by offering considerations that might not otherwise be explored.
It’s been 30 years since Linda and Mike Markkula, an Apple co-founder, donated funds to Santa Clara University for ethics. They helped establish an Ethics Center focused on practical applications offered with humility, not absolutes. The decision-making framework, developed in this spirit, can help close the “empathy gap” identified in this report. It asks:
What best serves the community as a whole and not just some members?
What actions best respect the rights of all who have a stake?
What treats people equally or proportionately?
What leads me to act as the sort of person I want to be?
What will produce the greatest good or do the least harm?
Asking these questions has helped me when giving money as a donor or representative of a Silicon Valley company, serving on nonprofit boards or managing nonprofit enterprises. Think of them as the Markkula Center’s birthday gift to help close gaps in understanding between people giving money away and organizations using that money to serve people in need.
Ann Skeet is the director of leadership ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are her own.