Marc Benioff Commencement Speech

Marc is an inspiring human being. His 20 minute commencement speech at USC this year nicely sums up his life story and how he became committed to his model of integrated philanthropy.

A Jr. MacArthur Foundation and Colin Marshall

Colin
There needs to be a MacArthur Foundation that focuses on emerging talents. It should give no-strings-attached grants to emerging talents in the same way MacArthur does for established talents. The grants would be given regardless of type of talent, though it would emphasize those demonstrating extraordinary creative potential yet who do not have much money. (I support economic affirmative action at young levels; I do not support racial affirmative action.) The current MacArthur genius grants are terrific in that they're given to individuals instead of causes or projects, but oftentimes the people don't really need the money or recognition. This "Junior MacArthur" program would involve placing riskier bets on still unproven individuals who nevertheless display great potential and tremendous self-direction. Grantees would use the money however they see fit to make the world a better place.

The first grantee should be Colin Marshall. Colin is a talented artist. He is one of the clearest thinking writers on the web. He runs a successful radio interview program. He runs a site about podcasts. He writes columns. He writes essays. He writes blog posts. He makes films. He tweets prolifically. He's 25 years old.

But there's a problem: his work doesn't generate much money. It's always been hard to make a living as an artist or self-employed intellectual. Especially so when Colin, by his own admission, knows nothing about making money:

Kinda trippy that I've biologically persisted nearly to the age of 25 without any idea whatsoever of how to make enough money to buy a car, isn't it?…I react to the mechanics of moneymaking with the same befuddlement that many of these well-heeled vehicle owners do when they stare at the dark, occult forms under their hoods.

At present, Colin has to spend some portion of his day doing bullshit work:

…[W]hatever one could call my "creative daily routine" turns out to be highly variable, since I have to wedge it in around "regular work," that is to say, the stuff that pays me cash bucks but is not broadcasting/interviewing, writing/essayism, film/video or sound/music. (I'm not sure how much sense it makes to organize life this way at my age, but bear with me.)

He knows the bullshit work could, if he's not careful, become the real work:

I've seen more than a few people fall into this basic scenario: get some McJob or cultivate an unengaging "fallback" career to support whatever it is they "really" do; grow dependent on the entity providing said McJob/fallback; build up a lifestyle whose monthly expenditure requires said employment; gradually, imperceptibly forget about real endeavors in the name of shorter-term concerns; become some hideous institutional creature, like a blind fish that feeds whatever nutrients happen to float across the ocean floor.

In any event, some extra money would go a long way for him:

…I personally reside at the point on the curve where an extra few grand — or, say, a double sawbuck left in the ATM — can greatly widen the smile on my face. Maybe this is a bad sign for someone my age, but when I saw Sibilance link to a WSJ article about how a 22-year-old girl managed to make it in NYC on $30,000 a year, my reaction was not "Woah, how'd she swing that?" but a series of elaborate fantasies about all the things I could do with the impossible dream of $30,000. Hell, what couldn't I do? That's "thousand" with a T, people. (And yes, when I think about how Ira Glass famously made "only" $60,000 a year for a long time while working hard on the radio, my inner voice becomes Robin Leach's.)

Of course, Colin could (and should) learn more about how to monetize his talents. But beyond a basic increase in entrepreneurial savvy — which would not require selling out by the way — beyond that, it becomes difficult to do the kind of work that he does (esoteric film reviews, for example) without spending a huge amount of time trying to raise money or work dull side jobs.

If Colin could focus on his art and not worry about the cash bucks, the world would be a richer place. I realize there are a million other people who think of themselves as falling into this category. Many writers, for sure. I'm highlighting Colin because a) he's a friend, b) he's young, c) a small amount of money could go a long way for him.

Bottom Line: Someone should start a program that gives no-strings-attached grants to high potential individuals under 30 with extraordinary creative potential (yet little money), and a demonstrated ability to self-direct and self-manage. Person-driven philanthropy.

The Contrarian Heroes

Peter Thiel has launched his foundation — The Thiel Foundation — which seeks to "defend and promote freedom in all its dimensions: political, personal, and economic."

In his essay for the Oslo Forum, Thiel writes, "Like explorers or inventors, the first one to stand up for the truth faces the biggest challenge, but creates a model for the second and third, who benefit from his example. The world needs more refuseniks, rejectionists, resisters, gadflies, doubters, critics, objectors, muckrakers, and prisoners of conscience."

He goes on to talk about the "contrarian heroes" who stand up against violence:

In human rights, a conceptual breakthrough generally involves no new knowledge, but rather the rigorous application of a principle we already knew. Libertarians talk of the nonaggression axiom, Christians of the golden rule, Hindus and Buddhists of ahimsa; and this commandment to love others is written on the heart.

Some societies suppress sympathy for the other more or less entirely. More advanced societies typically honor this principle loudly but narrowly. Contrarians who apply it have discovered and exposed the evil of slavery; conscription; persecution of speech, belief, and worship; collective guilt; war; and torture. And they’ve frequently been rewarded for their discoveries with a spot on the list of victims.

Contrarians have also discovered that these evils are driven by common temptations—tribalism or utilitarianism—and entail a common expedient, violence.

Raising Money on Facebook With “Causes”

My friend Josh Sommer, a junior at Duke University, is featured in a great article titled Patient Leads Fight for His Life in the Charlotte News & Observer. Josh has an inspiring life story. A couple years ago he was diagnosed with chordoma, a rare bone cancer with low survival rates. Instead of waiting around for scientists to make progress on a potential cure, Josh has jumped into the fray to try to save his own life. He and his mom launched the Chordoma Foundation to promote research of potential cures and galvanize the research community. He works 30 hours a week in Duke labs with professors who have agreed to study the problem.

674reg18249931173212embeddedprod_af A few weeks ago, Josh raised $4,200 over three days for his foundation on Facebook "Causes". By securing the most individual donations within a 24 hour period, he won Facebook’s $1k prize. About 1,300 people (mostly college students – like me) contributed small amounts of money to the cause. Talk about micro-philanthropy!

This is a fantastic testament to the power of social networks to organize friends from all over the world in a short period of time in support of a philanthropic cause. Josh told me after he raised the money that he’s learned some things about fundraising and Facebook: a) people will donate for their friends – the actual cause doesn’t really matter, b) it’s gotta be painless and convenient, c) the internet doesn’t inspire large donations, d) word spreads fast on Facebook…. All good lessons.

The internet has allowed young people to do things not possible even 10 years ago — start businesses, join ageless communities, raise money. Or, in the case of Josh, the opportunity to try to save his own life.

***

My favorite part about my college speaking tour in April was meeting hundreds of amazingly motivated students like Josh. At Duke, I spoke at a special program where a dozen students have dinner with an invited speaker, and I met Josh, Jeremy Welch, Breck Yuntis, and David Snider. All great guys who I’m sure will do big things in the coming years.

The Humorlessness of Idealists

Caitlin Flanagan is one of the funniest, most penetrating writers on feminist issues. And she has range. See her on MySpace predators, or on the supposed oral sex epidemic on college campuses.

In the latest Atlantic ($) she rips into Hillary Clinton. Along the way she says Hillary has the "worst of the traits that often mark idealists (humorlessness, sanctimoniousness) combined with the worst expediency and hypocrisy of her husband."

Her point about the humorlessness and sanctimoniousness of idealists caught my eye. I consider myself optimistic but not idealistic.

College is full of idealistic 20 year-olds. Particularly the activist variety. You know, people who walk around with "Save Darfur" t-shirts, drinking "Fair Trade" coffee (what a joke), munching on organic nuts from Trader Joe’s.

One of the reasons I dislike stereotypical activist types is the holier-than-thou aura they project. Whether fighting for Darfur or racial equality here at home, the leaders of the local movements I’ve been exposed to take themselves (and their movements) way too seriously.

Barraging the audience with statistics, gruesome photos, or heart-wrenching stories is not enough, and may even be counterproductive. Expressing intense moral outrage and expecting others to feel similarly guilty automatically is naive. I remember a National Organization for Women assembly at my high school — everyone left feeling depressed about the oppression of women. But it didn’t move us to act or think hard about how to change anything.

With so many just causes competing for the average Joe’s attention, I would recommend that the social activist idealists of the world spend more time thinking through specific communication tactics, among them the implicit suggestion from Flanagan: loosen up.

NCWIT Heroes: Outstanding Women in IT

The National Center for Women & Information Technology yesterday launched their Heroes project. The Heroes project is a series of magazine-style audio interviews highlighting women entrepreneurs in information technology careers, sponsored by the NCWIT Entrepreneurial Alliance. The series features weekly 15-minute interviews with approximately 20 women IT entrepreneurs chosen from among more than 100 nominations.

NCWIT is a fantastic organization devoted to studying and promoting the issue of women contributions to IT and entrepreneurship. When I worked in Colorado during Q1 I spent a bunch of time with CEO Lucy Sanders, interviewer Larry Nelson, and others to help get this project off the ground. The idea behind the Heroes project is to highlight the extraordinary work of some "heroes" in the industry with the hope that it inspires young women to pursue a career in the field.

Check out the early interview with Helen Greiner of iRobot. Good stuff. And there’s more to come.

If you have any feedback on the interviews or ideas for how we can get the word out about this new podcast series, send me a note.

Are Perpetual Charitable Institutions Irresponsible?

Becker and Posner this week discuss charitable foundations and touch on a point I hadn’t thought much about which are sunset provisions to ensure a charity’s assets are disbursed within a certain time frame. Becker notes that Bill Gates has said that his endowment will be spent within 50 years of the death of the third of his three trustees. Posner explains why a perpetual charitable foundation is "irresponsible":

A perpetual charitable foundation, however, is a completely irresponsible institution, answerable to nobody. It competes neither in capital markets nor in product markets (in both respects differing from universities), and, unlike a hereditary monarch whom such a foundation otherwise resembles, it is subject to no political controls either. It is not even subject to benchmark competition—that is, evaluation by comparison with similar enterprises—except with regard to the percentage of its expenditures that go to administration (staff salaries and the like) rather than to donees. The puzzle for economics is why these foundations are not total scandals. The solution to the puzzle seems to me twofold: the foundations are controlled by trustees, whose prestige is invested in the success of the foundation; and foundations are constrained by law, as well as by the limited benchmark measure that I mentioned, to give away most of their income, and this limits the ability of staff to appropriate the foundation’s income for its personal benefit.

Luck, Money, and Happiness

“If you stick me down in the middle of Bangladesh or Peru,” Warren Buffett has said, “you’ll find out how much this talent is going to produce in the wrong kind of soil.” The Nobel Prize-winning economist and social scientist Herbert Simon estimated that “social capital” is responsible for at least 90 percent of what people earn in wealthy societies like those of the United States or northwestern Europe. By social capital Simon meant not only natural resources but, more important, the technology and organizational skills in the community, and the presence of good government. These are the foundation on which the rich can begin their work.

If you have a rich friend who keeps talking about "all my hard work and all my money that I earned", go send them the above passage from Peter Singer’s NYT magazine cover article on why people should be giving much, much more to charity. As I’ve said before, luck and circumstances are vital.

In a somewhat related piece in the December Atlantic Monthly, the wonderful Clive Crook writes enthusiastically ($) about the British documentary Seven-Up which interviewed children at age seven and then every seven years after that to see how they grew up. The filmmaker’s thesis: "Give me a child at seven, and I will give you the man." After watching the privileged children prosper materially and the unprivileged children flounder but still make it to adulthood in one piece, Crook concludes:

Does privilege early in life make it easier to prosper as an adult? Yes. Do early setbacks spoil your chances? Of course they do. The children of rich parents tend to be rich; the children of poor parents do much less well. One cannot watch these films without wanting to lean hard against the unfairness of this world. Yet one sees, also, that satisfaction in life is not the same thing as material success. Though one emerges disinclined to mold these lives to theories, one comes away suspecting that happiness, contentment, and self-respect are character traits as much as they are fruits of success. Money matters, obviously, but so do whether you are crushed by disappointment or spurred by it, sociable or solitary, restless or settled, capable or incapable of intimacy, deserving or undeserving of trust. And loneliness, maybe, is worse than poverty.

Ideally, have lots of money and a large capacity for happiness. But if you had to choose just one, these films suggest which it should be.

Time to Give — It's the Holidays

A few years ago I realized I had no intense desire for more material possessions….and that any desire I did have was much less intense than a desire to buy and read more books.

So, I spread the word: if you want to get me something for Christmas or for my birthday, check out my Amazon wish list and buy me a book, or donate to a charity on my behalf. The past two Christmases I’ve given a handful of small donations on other people’s behalf (Acumen Fund, Junior Giants Fund, Ms. Foundation, George Washington Kenmore Foundation, and others).

This year, I am supporting the Ashoka Foundation. I just submitted my donation online with a credit card. They do excellent work in the area of “social entrepreneurship”. Social entrepreneurship takes the principles of entrepreneurship and applies them to social problems. In addition to attending an Ashoka event a few weeks ago, I chatted on the phone last week with one of their heads to hear about their new IT initiatives. I’m a fan.

It’s the holidays. If you have the resources to read this blog, you have the resources to give a little. Please do.

Ashoka Fellows 2006 Change World Through Social Entrepreneurship

I believe the profit-motive has produced the most good in the world by introducing the hugest world-changing ideas — both in terms of the products we use and the culture we consume.

But I suppose the next best thing to for-profit entrepreneurship is "social entrepreneurship" — a new breed of civic / non-profit / hybrid entrepreneurs.

I had the pleasure of supporting my friend Steven Clift be inducted as a 2006 Ashoka Fellow tonight at the Google campus after a welcome by Sergey Brin and other leading lights of the change-the-world movement. Ashoka is an organization funding the best social entrepreneurs. James Fallows, one of my intellectual heros, recently said if he had a million dollars to give away he’d give it to Ashoka. The work Ashoka supports is much more compelling than your traditional charity.

Steven Clift has been promoting e-democracy and e-government for many years. We were both named among the most influential people in the world of internet and politics at a conference in Paris a few years ago; he said some kind things about me in an SF Weekly piece; I’ve given him some material about Comcate‘s e-gov work that he’s used in presentations to congressional committes and audiences around the world. We share a passion to make government and politics more accessible and interactive using the internet.

Congrats Steven and the entire Class of 2006 Ashoka Fellows. March on. This change the world stuff ain’t always easy. Ashoka has just made it a little less hard.