Salesforce Stumbles, but Its Equity-Focused Philanthropy Marches On

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Salesforce has been going through a rough patch lately. Last fall, Bret Taylor, the company’s co-CEO, announced that he was leaving his post after just one year on the job. Then, at the beginning of this year, founder and CEO Marc Benioff announced that the company would be laying off 10% of its workforce — about 8,000 employees — part of a wave of tech industry layoffs. Employees who survived the layoffs are unsettled, investors are wary, and Benioff is scrambling to get the company back on track. There was some brighter news at the company in recent days: Salesforce stock had a significant rally, and it unveiled its own AI technology.

Salesforce may be on rocky terrain, but the company’s impressive philanthropy marches on. To honor Black History Month, the Salesforce Foundation’s Catalyst Fund announced 10 new grantees last month — all organizations headed by Black leaders “who are forging pathways to education and career success for young people of color in the United States,” according to the announcement.

The grants, totaling $1 million, will support leaders of organizations that work closely with young people and provide education, mentorship, job and leadership skills. The Center for Black Educator Development, for example, recruits Black students into the teaching profession (see complete list of grantees here).

In its announcement, Salesforce cited findings from “Racial Equity and Philanthropy,” a 2020 report by Echoing Green and the Bridgespan Group, that show that Black and Latinx nonprofit leaders make up about 10% of nonprofit leadership in the country but receive only 4% of philanthropic funding. The Salesforce Catalyst Fund was created in 2022 to address this gap and overall underinvestment in communities of color. This is its second round of funding; to date, it has given $4 million.

The grants continue one of the more robust philanthropic track records to come out of the sector, with a focus on K-12 and public school districts in particular. Right at its start, the company made philanthropy part of its story, forming the 1-1-1 philanthropic model, and since then, has moved millions toward education, children and workforce development. Salesforce is also unique in that, as in the case of the Catalyst Fund, it provides unrestricted grants. Marc and Lynne Benioff, meanwhile, have become a philanthropic powerhouse, firing off multiple $100 million donations to children’s hospitals, channeling funds toward ending homelessness and making a new commitment to curbing climate change.

Like so many corporations and foundations in 2020 and its aftermath, Salesforce amped up its focus on racial equity. Rebecca Ferguson, the company’s senior vice president of philanthropy and Salesforce Foundation COO, described the Catalyst Fund’s approach in an IP guest post when the fund launched last year. Providing unrestricted funds to smaller, newer nonprofits led by people of color, she wrote, “empowers diverse organizations with the flexibility to plan, innovate and scale — driving impact and addressing the issue of systemic underfunding head-on. These organizations can fund projects and initiatives that address the needs they see and experience in their communities. This not only redistributes money, it redistributes power.”

Hidden genius

As a high school student at The Hidden Genius Project, Andrew Lubega designed an app called “Kicks for Nerds,” a shoe-shopping and social media platform. Lubega is now a computer science major at San Francisco State University. Another Hidden Genius alum, Olana Abraham, learned how to develop and refine a business pitch and create a video game while in the program. Abraham is now a student at UCLA. 

The Oakland-based Hidden Genius Project, a grantee in the Catalyst Fund’s first round of funding last June, was founded in 2012 by five Black men who were working in the tech sector. They were dismayed by the lack of diversity in tech — and the lack of opportunities for young Black men in their community. The organization’s signature Intensive Immersion program provides Black high school students like Lubega and Abraham with digital, leadership and entrepreneurial skills, as well as mentorship and community.

Many schools and summer camps promote technology skills for young people, of course, but The Hidden Genius Project focuses exclusively on Black youth. For Abraham, that made a big difference. “I have always been the lone or one of the few Black participants in STEM programs,” he said in an interview on the organization’s website. “But with the Immersion Program being for young Black males, The Hidden Genius Project made me feel like I belong, setting it apart from other programs.”

CEO Brandon Nicholson says the Salesforce gift has helped support the project’s ambitious expansion plans. Along with sites in Oakland and nearby Richmond, The Hidden Genius Project opened sites in L.A. and Detroit last year, and is launching in Chicago and Atlanta this year. “We’re aiming to have upward of 10 sites by 2025,” he told IP.

Nicholson emphasized that The Hidden Genius Project doesn’t just fly in to new places and set up shop; they first do the groundwork to make sure that a potential site needs and wants what the organization has to offer. “It’s all about showing people in communities that we’re there for the right reasons,” he said. “In the grand scheme, our recipe for success is collaboration, building, finding mutual benefit, and I think we approach our relationships with our corporate partners and our funders the same way.” 

This collaborative approach is one of the reasons that for Ron Smith, Salesforce vice president of philanthropy, The Hidden Genius Project exemplifies the kind of work the Catalyst Fund wants to support. Not only does it work with underrepresented minorities, specifically Black young men, to provide mentorship and tech skills — “What’s also great about their work is that they are going in and becoming part of the community, basically putting down roots, and allowing those roots to grow,” he said.

Salesforce Catalyst Fund grants are unrestricted, so grantees can decide how to use the funds. “The thing about unrestricted funding is it’s just a great opportunity to say, ‘we trust you,’” said Smith. “That’s the key. We trust your judgment, because we have a belief in your organization, we want to invest in the organization to grow, to really expand on the amazing work. And that’s something that you can’t do if we come in and say the funds have to be for X. We do our due diligence on the front end, then we can go into the partnership and let them do their work on the back end.”

For Salesforce and The Hidden Genius Project, that trust has built up over a number of years of working together. Salesforce employees put in volunteer hours there, and the organization has received matching donations, but the Catalyst Fund gift is The Hidden Genius Project’s first formal grant. 

Family drama

One of the hallmarks of this current wave of tech industry philanthropy is that wealthy founders have tended to embark on giving at a younger age than their predecessors, who typically waited until retirement. Perhaps inspired by the way billionaires like Gates reinvented themselves as charitable figures, today’s tech titans embrace “giving while living” and make philanthropy central to the narratives of their companies, as they are building them. One outcome of this approach is the sense of whiplash it creates between their disruptive, sometimes controversy-plagued business careers and their charitable goals.

Someone like Mark Zuckerberg is a standout example of this conflict, but it’s more jarring in some ways for a CEO like Benioff. It’s easy to be cynical about Facebook, but Salesforce and Benioff have cultivated a reputation as a kinder, gentler presence in Silicon Valley. The largest employer in San Francisco, Salesforce prides itself on its worker-friendly environment. Founder Marc Benioff often talks about “Ohana,” a Hawaiian term that invokes a sense of family. The news that the company is reportedly paying actor Matthew McConaughey more than $10 million a year for his role as “creative advisor,” which came out as employees were receiving layoff notices, added to the sour mood inside the company.

There’s also the extent to which anyone worth over $7 billion and their enormous company reflects our unequal economy. In a recent interview with the New York Times, Joshua Greenbaum, an analyst with Enterprise Applications Consulting, highlighted the conflict between Benioff’s simultaneous roles as a philanthropist who champions social justice and a hard-headed businessman. “Marc makes himself a target for criticism by positioning himself as much more than a rampant capitalist tech bro. But if you don’t want your company to pay taxes” — Salesforce paid no tax, legally, on billions in corporate income — “what right do you have to lecture people on how to make the world better?”

Of course, troubles at Salesforce don’t detract from the important work of the Salesforce Catalyst Fund — or of The Hidden Genius Project and the other organizations that the Salesforce Foundation supports. But the reverse is also true: Worthy philanthropic efforts shouldn’t obscure the human fallout of the decisions billionaires make — even billionaires like Marc Benioff, whose philanthropy has boosted public education, access to healthcare and mental healthcare, and so many other causes. You have to wonder if Benioff himself wrestles with this conflict — we certainly do.