Emmett Carson - Young Billionaires and the Renaissance of Philanthropy




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Mar 10, 2014
by Alex Jackson
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Emmett Carson - Young Billionaires and the Renaissance of Philanthropy

Silicon Valley Community Foundation CEO sits down with Salzburg Global Seminar to discuss how philanthropy is growing and changing Emmett Carson speaks alongside women's rights advocate Angelika Arutyunova, about different models of philanthropy

“I am African American, I am male and I am a United States citizen. Which one am I right at this moment?” poses Emmett Carson, CEO of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

Of course, the answer is all three, something which he says is important in recognising when we think of ourselves as global citizens, trying to change the world. “I think global citizens are at once local, national and international. The new world is about the people that say I don’t simultaneously see in my head separate linkages between where I live; what the corporate world needs to be; what the global world needs to be. They fuse it all into one single experience and identity and I think that’s all to the good. I think we limit people when we try to define them as one singular community.”

This viewpoint is something that Carson has held since he was in high school. “I wanted to understand why markets work for some people and why they didn’t seemingly work for others,” he explained; when you study different sectors of disadvantaged people, you build up a bigger picture of the ways in which markets work. The spectrum of problems faced by different communities is wide and varied, and Carson points to cultural, social and economic issues that deprive certain areas. “Philanthropy is about trying to allocate limited resources to unlimited needs.”

The esteemed philanthropist has dealt with this inequality his whole life. As a child, he grew up in a disadvantaged community in Chicago, IL, USA. Only when he moved to a different area of the city did he notice the stark contrasts enjoyed in other suburbs. The experience is something that still motivates him today, as he reflects on how his hometown has gradually declined even further.

“The real issue is that so many can’t get access to being successful and I think we misplace the energy on why others have been successful as if people have done something wrong. I get the opportunity to meet with many of these individuals and they come from many humble and modest backgrounds. They have worked very hard. We shouldn’t begrudge the fact that they have been successful.”

Instead, Carson, who oversaw the largest merger of community foundation groups in US history between the Peninsula Community Foundation and Community Foundation Silicon Valley, believes that we can compare the hesitancy of foundations to surfers, waiting for the right wave to catch. The perfect storm of his metaphor lies in growing inequities: “We are trying to put it into perspective what is going on in that inequality. We ought to ask what is it about our communities and our societies that don’t produce more opportunities for success and I think the opportunity for philanthropy is in the middle of this wave.”

Silicon Valley Community Foundation is certainly one of the companies most likely to cause waves at the moment as one of the most prolific grant makers on the West Coast of America. By highlighting the need for investment and improvement in key areas such as economic security, education, immigration, and regional planning, Carson’s business has not only gained international repute for philanthropy, but has gained attention from the dotcom world, with 29-year-old billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, donating shares in the social media monolith to the value of almost $1billion in 2013, the largest charitable gift on public record for the year.

“Historically, people have waited to be successful and then engage in philanthropy. Certainly that was the Bill Gates model, that’s what the Fords and the Carnegies and the Rockefellers did. But if you think about Mark Zuckerberg, his wife, Priscila Chan, and their ages, and people of their generation. It means they will have 40 to 50 years to engage in philanthropy. How much more experienced will they be, how much more nuanced will they be in their thinking 10 years from now, 20 years from now? So that is the real renaissance in philanthropy.”

With more people being able to discuss and populate the philanthropy ecosystem, there are a lot more issues being addressed. Carson points to benefactors in the area who are now much more libertarian in their views, and are actively participating in debates on immigration, education and the legalisation of marijuana, to name a few. The diversification of the sphere promises an acceleration in philanthropic trends, suggests Carson. “It used to be that philanthropy was the province of foundations: now philanthropy is the province of everyone.”

But this creates as many problems as it solves. “Now there is a much more complicated picture of people raising and complicating money and goods. And we don’t know what that system looks like. We don’t have a way of relating to each other. We don’t understand this new ecosystem.”

Carson pauses when considering how this is both exciting and dangerous. He reflects on how social media has managed to galvanise sentiment to overthrow governments, alert people to pending disasters, and spur civic movements. Our information is only getting deeper, and he suggests this wealth of knowledge needs to be harnessed in order to make philanthropy organisations a more efficient and effective system in the 21st Century.

“These are tools which by themselves are agnostic. It takes the people to give them the value proposition that will result in improving quality of life.”

Emmett Carson was a speaker at the Salzburg Global Seminar session "Value(s) for Money? Philanthropy as a Catalyst for Social and Financial Change", which was sponsored by Hivos. You can read interviews with a number of the other speakers and participants of the session on the webpage: www.salzburgglobal.org/go/530