You've got to admire the spunk of Perla Ni over at GreatNonprofits for taking on Larry Ellison.
It's not exactly a path to success, as others who have taken on the Oracle (ORCL) CEO will be quick to tell you. But in recent weeks Ni has featured Ellison front and center on the nonprofit's blog, presenting the billionaire as the Silicon Valley pinup for those who are tightfisted with enormous wealth.
"It just stands out that one of the richest men here in Silicon Valley doesn't seem to be doing his part in philanthropy compared to some of his peers," she says.
One blog post, in a breezy style, chronicles Ellison's purchases of yachts, monster homes, luxury cars and tropical islands. The post speculates that the oracle of Oracle bought Lanai to keep up with rival moguls Richard Branson and Marc Benioff, who each control bits of tropical paradises themselves. It points to public filings that indicate that Ellison's foundation in 2010 donated a sum equal to .00083 of Ellison's wealth. And it asks readers to recommend causes to which Ellison might contribute. You can find the post and a follow-up at greatnonprofits.org/nonprofitnews.
One goal of the Ellison
Ni's got the right idea -- the polite world of Silicon Valley philanthropy could use a little irreverence. But she's got the wrong target. As much fun as it is poking fun at one of the world's richest men, the fact is the guy gives. Sure, his main beneficiary appears to be The Ellison Medical Foundation, which supports work prolonging life, presumably including Ellison's. (I've said before that it's hard to make the argument with Ellison that "you can't take it with you." He doesn't plan to go.) But it can be tough enough getting Silicon Valley titans to give without questioning the causes they choose to support.
In fact, Ellison recently said that he's contributed about $1 billion to the foundation. And he's signed The Giving Pledge, a promise to donate most of his wealth to charity during his life or after he dies.
Despite its flaws, I'm glad GreatNonprofits launched the Ellison campaign. It's a reminder of how difficult discussions about giving can be here. Silicon Valley is a land of plenty with a laser focus on business success. It's a place about getting to the next big thing before the next person; a place where it's not good enough to keep up with the Joneses -- you need to blow by them like they're standing still. It's a place where the big picture can get lost in the blur of the race.
There have always been exceptions -- exceptional exceptions, even, like Bill and Flora Hewlett, David and Lucile Packard, Gordon and Betty Moore, Pierre and Pam Omidyar, Sergey Brin and Anne Wojcicki, Mark Zuckerberg and others, including many significant but lesser-known family foundations. But Ni is looking for more, as she should.
"You know, we need some irreverent people on the nonprofit side," says Connie Martinez, CEO of 1stACT Silicon Valley, who has worked to bring attention to the needs of arts nonprofits here. "We're very polite, but you need to fight for your positions. I guess the only question is how do you do that."
Martinez says she would not do it by pointing fingers at individuals, but she'll watch to see how GreatNonprofits' campaign goes. So far, it is creating buzz on the organization's website, where people are posting about the good works their own nonprofits or their favorite nonprofits are doing.
That feeds directly into GreatNonprofits' mission: getting people to think about philanthropy. The organization's site is a Yelp for charitable organizations -- those who contribute to, are helped by or are involved with nonprofits write reviews of their experiences. Ni says it provides exposure for some of the smaller nonprofits that people otherwise wouldn't hear about.
Ni, the founder of the Stanford Social Innovation Review with degrees from UC Berkeley and Harvard law, is no dummy. She no doubt saw the potential for the Ellison campaign to bring attention to her organization and to the topic of philanthropy in Silicon Valley, a topic that seems to resonate more and more as the area matures.
"We're starting to see a shift in philanthropy in the valley," she says. "We want to nurture that shift and make sure that philanthropic potential in this valley fully blossoms."
And so how is it that Ni and her staff came up with this Ellison idea in the first place? Turns out, GreatNonprofits is Oracle's neighbor in Redwood Shores -- a place where Ni says, "there is no place to eat except the Oracle cafeteria."
Yep, they dine in the belly of the beast and when they do the conversation sometimes turns to Ellison, his massive wealth, what he does with it and what he could do with it. Which means both that Ellison is a target of convenience and that the GreatNonprofits crew's lunch routine could be in jeopardy.
So far, they haven't heard from Ellison and no one at his company's dining hall have given them trouble.
"They haven't recognized us yet," Ni says.
At this rate, it's only a matter of time.
Contact Mike Cassidy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 408-920-5536. Follow him at Twitter.com/mikecassidy.