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[whitespace] Got To Give It Up

A year in the wild and wacky world of Silicon Valley philanthropy

By Dan Pulcrano

Despite their not entirely deserved reputation for stinginess, Silicon Valley's richest citizens in 2001 embraced philanthropy in classic valley style: think big, think different. California foundations now dispense a disproportionate share of the nation's grant dollars--one in eight--and valley-based foundations are at the top of the do-gooder heap.

David Packard

The valley's most influential donor, of course, continues to be dead philanthropist David Packard, whose legacy foundation doled out a half-billion dollars to such pet projects as, well, saving the world. That includes fighting global overpopulation, saving endangered species and protecting a half-million acres or so of Western open space, farmlands and coastal scenery by paying landowners to do nothing. Nothing in the way of developing their property, that is.

Gordon Moore

Woodside resident Gordon Moore and his spouse Betty jumped on the land-hugging bandwagon by directing a cool quarter billion to Conservation International to protect endangered plant and animal species. That involves, in part, paying loggers to stop clearcutting rainforests in the Amazon, the Congo and New Guinea. Moore, who co-founded a modest company called Intel and is generally considered brilliant for casually cooking up a notion called Moore's Law that more or less accurately predicted computing power growth for at least three decades, also in 2001 made the largest academic donation in the history of humankind, giving $600 million to his alma mater, Caltech.

Jim Clark

Serial billionaire Jim Clark also distributed some chunks of the money he made at Netscape, Healtheon and SGI, then pulled $60 million of his $150 million pledge to Stanford University off the table to protest President Bush's decision on stem-cell research. Clark's Aug. 31 publicity stunt, like the president's foray into medical ethics, was completely forgotten about 11 days later.

Saving humanity through bioscience was also high on Larry Ellison's to-do list, right up there with yacht races and late-night booty calls out of San Jose Jet Center. Big Larry endowed a foundation that spends about $45 million a year searching for cures to age-related diseases. Cynical press wags, for whom he's way too easy a target, mock Ellison's generosity as simply a mortality-fearing rich guy's scheme to cheat death. Ellison counters that without this type of research, aging baby boomers will bankrupt our great nation. The peanut gallery might look more kindly on Ellison's choice of charity when one of their aging relatives contracts Parkinson's or Alzheimer's.

Santa Clara Valley's youngest high-profile billionaire do-gooder, eBay's Jeff Skoll, became a poster boy for socially responsible dotcommers by creating a community foundation with a traunch of his stock and recruiting the head of the Children's Discovery Museum to run the enterprise. The Skoll team took the bold step of alerting local media that patriotic Americans had left local charities high and dry in the midst of a bad economy during the rush to assist their Manhattan comrades. The foundation backed the message with a couple mil in greenbacks.

Steve Kirsch

The valley's most vocal champion of activist philanthropy, Infoseek veteran Steve Kirsch, added $200,000 to the emergency fund, and the Sobrato Family Foundation kicked in another $2 million. Kirsch, by the way, has gone ballistic, if you'll pardon the expression, over the possibility that an asteroid could strike Planet Earth and destroy human civilization, just as one of those stray flying rocks did to our dinosaur friends a few million years ago.

So concerned is he about saving the world that the Steve and Michell Kirsch Foundation has made the twin threats of nuclear obliteration and asteroid identification its "Goal 1." Getting all wigged out about such a remote public safety threat could lead some small thinkers to conclude that Kirsch's elevator may no longer be stopping on every floor. The chances of us getting dusted by an errant comet or asteroid are generally considered as slim as, say, a plane crashing into the Pentagon.

Joe Firmage

Also keeping his retinas firmly trained on the cosmos is our favorite space case, Joe Firmage. The web visionary has been putting his millions to good use in funding a whole passel of bleeding-edge scientific research, and he's no longer talking about extraterrestrial visits to Roswell or Los Gatos. From the looks of it, he's hoping to visit them. At least that's one conclusion that can be drawn from surfing his new "Project Voyager" website, the latest manifestation of Joe's mission to render old-school notions (i.e. that gravity and the speed of light pose barriers to interstellar joyrides) as anachronistic as flat-Earth myths.

That's at least as ambitious as Cypress Semiconductor CEO T.J. Rodgers' quest to go where no Californian has gone before, which is to ferment an authentic French-style pinot noir in the "1580 Romanée-Conti tradition." In pursuit of this high objective, T.J. committed $4 million to blow a hole in a mountain near his Woodside manse and is now bottling extremely small quantities of his "Clos de la Tech" pinot for sale "primarily to Silicon Valley CEOs on a mail-order basis." Which means you won't be able to buy it by the tumbler at Original Joe's.

Steve Jobs

Still, the Future Philanthropist of the Year award goes to Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who recently took aim at Bill Gates' scheme to donate $1 billion worth of his products to schools to extinguish his Microsoft's debt to society for its illegal behavior. Jobs astutely characterized the "penalty" as nothing more than a transparent ruse to further institutionalize the Redmond behemoth's monopoly and undermine its competition. His on-the-mark comments, however, rang hollow to some because Jobs has yet to make a personal gesture remotely approaching Bill and Melinda's heavily promoted gifts to their namesake foundation, which funds libraries, schools and efforts to combat health threats like AIDS. Jobs hinted long ago that he would be getting in touch with his philanthropic side at some point and we are sure it's because he's cooking up something "insanely great."

Jobs may have missed the window though, because he could have made some grand gesture back in the days when he was one of the valley's handful of billionaires and a paltry $6 million could put one's name on the building of one of the nation's pre-eminent computer science schools, as Gates did at Stanford. Now, as a simple billionaire in an industry awash in multi- and deca-billionaires, poor Steve won't be able to top his wealthier peers in sheer philanthropic firepower, so he'll have to think really different.

From rescuing rainforests and protecting California's coast to tracking space activity and searching for disease cures, the valley's tech titans this year impacted the global community in original, innovative and meaningful ways. Obviously, Steve won't want to sit this planetary reshaping party out. If anyone can outclass stem cells and asteroids, it has to be Steve Jobs. We just know he has something up his sleeve.

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From the January 3-9, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2002 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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