Larry Ellison Has $100 Million for a Boat...How About a Little for the Arts?

Here’s what we know: the Bay Area is an arts mecca.

Throughout this region there are big-budget, world-renowned major arts institutions and armies of radical, boot-strapping individual artists and a dazzling constellation of organizations and producers in between. According to an Artplace America 2013 report, the region boasts two of the nation’s Top Arts Places (the Mission District in San Francisco and downtown Oakland).

We also know that the Bay Area is the technology capital of America. Not only do the world’s largest tech companies base their operations here, but the cafes are so full of coders and entrepreneurs banging away on their laptops, compulsively checking their mobile devices and conspicuously talking about C-round financing that it’s almost too easy to caricature.

From a distance, there is a logical congruence: of course the Bay Area is home to both artists and technologists. The ingredients of success in both fields are creativity, inspiration and originality coupled with dogged work, exceptional training and the support of visionary individual donors and investors.

The regional economy and the tech sector in particular are booming (have you tried to rent a place in SF lately?). Americans for the Arts reports that, along with a rise in corporate earnings, there has been a rise in corporate giving to the arts. Profitability is cited as the number one reason why companies are giving as much to the arts as they were in 2006, before the recession.

But if that’s true for corporate giving as a whole, is it true for the tech sector in particular?

The answer seems to be, despite the apparently strong overlap in values and paths to success between the arts and tech sectors, no. Oracle may have $100 million to spend on a world-beating sailboat, but no locally-based tech company has stepped forward to massively underwrite the arts in the Bay Area.

Google has given up to $30 million annually to Bay Area causes and organizations, leading the way for local corporate giving. Their philanthropic priorities are health, disaster relief, the environment and education. In particular, Google has contributed significantly to science museums including Exploratorium and the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, and The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose.

This seems to be the comfort zone for tech companies. Autodesk, Genentech, Oracle, Intel, Adobe, Applied Materials and Cisco have also given to these science museums (Facebook, Zynga and Twitter are noticeably absent from the corporate sponsor pages). Even Apple donated to The Tech, which is remarkable given that corporate philanthropy was anathema to Steve Jobs, and only since Tim Cook took over has the company complemented its educational discount program by making grants of consequence at all ($50 million to Stanford hospitals and $50 million to fighting AIDS globally, in case you were interested).

The logic of tech companies linking their philanthropy to science museums is clear and personal as well; many of the engineers who work for and lead these companies had positive encounters with science in their youth, so taking their kids to find inspiration at The Tech or Exploratorium is a link in a virtuous cycle of curiosity and innovation.

Some tech companies with Bay Area headquarters or major offices have hooked into the arts community. Adobe is a major supporter of digital media programs for youth and the Mozilla Foundation (the Firefox guys) also supports filmmaking for the web. Still others, like Dolby Technologies, are valued underwriters of film festivals and media-arts exhibitions at art museums.

But, on the whole, direct financial contributions to arts organizations are the exception, not the rule for Bay Area tech companies.

There are certainly local high-profile tech company founders who are mightily philanthropic. Gordon and Betty Moore (founders of Intel) have given away over $2 billion to support medical and scientific research and environmental causes, including land conservation in the Bay Area, while the Omidyars (founders of eBay) give globally to promote government transparency, entrepreneurship and microfinancing. Mark Zuckerberg has given $100 million to Newark, New Jersey public schools and pledged $500 million in Facebook stock to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation; George Lucas sold his company to Disney and committed the $4 billion he received to a new educational foundation. And the legacy foundations built by tech money are bedrocks of regional arts support (hat tip to the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in the Bay Area and the Paul Allen Foundation in the Northwest).

While some successful tech entrepreneurs and investors have set up foundations to support their interests, many believe that to make the world better they should invest and actively engage in scaling up social enterprises rather than write checks to traditional nonprofits. Just as venture capitalists provide seed funding, management experience and access to major capital to companies they believe can grow and attract a broad base of consumers (think Justin Timberlake in “The Social Network”), venture philanthropists get behind social change agents who need money and expertise to serve more people better and build viable, if not necessarily profitable, revenue streams in the process. (San Francisco’s very own is a paradigmatic venture philanthropy success story). There are a number of these venture philanthropy or impact investing funds in Silicon Valley—the Tipping Point Community is focused on reducing poverty in the Bay Area, the Full Circle Fund and SV2match Bay Area match philanthropists with social entrepreneurs working in the education, environment, global development and health arenas. So far, though, no evidence of venture philanthropy for the arts.

Many people who’ve become wealthy as tech company leaders or investors focus not on the arts but on social services at home and abroad (and also contribute handsomely to political candidates and causes from Net neutrality to immigration reform). So it may be the region’s thousands of tech-industry workers who hold the most philanthropic promise for the arts community. Discerning the giving patterns and priorities of this population, however, is complicated.

Kickstarter doesn’t publish data on contributions by region, but the site reflects a slew of Bay Area music, film, dance and yes, even theatre projects—and a slew of local backers.

The habits of techies on crowd-funding platforms likely track with what’s known about next-gen donors in general:

- They give more to projects and causes than organizations, and don’t feel an obligation to support the same cause year after year.

- They want to see evidence at the outset that their contribution is going to result in something concrete and make an immediate impact—so much the better if that evidence is in the form of research and data reflecting empirical demonstrations of past success.

- They give to things their friends and peers give to.

There’s also a connection between the substance of what goes into a pitch for support and the style of that pitch.

People who work in tech (and I have, several times in my career) download the new iOS for their iPhones first, their source for news is social media and they ingest video content in sugary-sweet six-second Vines. For this demographic, end-of-year appeal letters are as compelling as calls on a land-line. So if artists and theatre companies want checks from individuals—and, specifically, individuals who can afford SF rents and restaurants—then make the pitch to them in terms they can relate to...and make it look good, too.

And if your theatre company wants a nice check from a major tech company, start a science museum! Actually, the savvier answer is: keep working your networks and cultivate relationships with tech company employees. A performing arts organization has an incredible advantage over most other nonprofits competing for a contribution: the opportunity to invite a donor to see you in the theatre on a Saturday night doing what you do best. Inviting audiences to get to know you and your work—especially audiences comprised of innovators who, like artists, value creativity and resourcefulness and, at their best, strive to enhance the quality of life for others—is always the best case you can make for support. Even better, if an interaction designer or a software engineer makes a personal contribution, their company will probably match it, even if they work at Apple!