Where Charity Begins

Those fearless tech leaders are getting less timid

Dave Packard and his friend and partner Bill Hewlett established a standard for philanthropy in Silicon Valley that was truly inspiring. They were not self-aggrandizing givers. They gave hundreds of millions of dollars to Stanford University, for example, but the first building to bear the late Packard's name didn't appear until 1999, after his death. Most important, they never shirked their role as leaders, advocates of community service who set an example by deed and endorsement of all kinds of projects they thought would make the community, and the world, stronger.

In recent years, many high-tech leaders have paid lip service to that legacy, but in practice they've turned tail. Eyes averted, toeing the carpet, they have whined about a lack of time and complained that they don't dare reveal their giving to charitable efforts for fear that they would be inundated with requests.

As that attitude has worn thin, various creative types have begun talking about "reinventing philanthropy." It sounds so deliciously New Economy. There are new "venture" models for raising funds. There are Web "give with one click" enterprises. There is the ongoing search for "impact metrics" so you can promise a giver a measurable return on investment. Tech execs announce goals like getting X number of computers in X number of classrooms by X day, with the gravity of public health officials of old declaring war on the remaining pockets of polio.

I know many of these efforts are well-intentioned. But the techno rhetoric can be tiresome because so few high-tech leaders openly and bravely support causes beyond the feel-good topic of education. It's heartening that lots of young startups are beginning to send employee teams to help projects like Habitat for Humanity and are setting aside some stock for charity. But stinginess and defensiveness still lurk beneath the surface.

I asked an Internet entrepreneur about his feelings on philanthropy recently. "Well, I haven't had the kind of success some people have," he stammered. "I guess old Bill [Gates] finally turned around on that once he got married, sensitized, and sued." He smiled and scurried off.

There is good news, though. Philanthropic tech leaders are emerging. Netscape Communications Corp. billionaires Jim Barksdale and Jim Clark have given away hundreds of millions recently to literacy programs and biomedical research, respectively. And kudos should go to Steve Kirsch, founder of Internet startup Propel and founder previously of Infoseek Corp., for lighting a fire under a lot of the Valley wealthy. He has personally put $75 million into a foundation for an array of charitable endeavors. Much more important, Kirsch relentlessly and publicly goads his fellow entrepreneurs in speeches and in media interviews to step up and do more. That doesn't always make him popular.

During a recent dinner event in a tony Palo Alto hotel, I watched a lower-key but highly effective form of leadership in action. Thanks to Mayfield Fund venture capitalist Mike Levinthal and his wife Kathy Schlein Levinthal, 100 top venture capitalists and other heavy hitters heard from Stephen Bright, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights.

This wasn't a crowd that typically sits still for more than an executive summary. But instead of a carefully scripted linkage of a donation to a payback, Bright spoke from the heart about people this crowd would never fund, never market to, never hire, and probably had never realized existed.

He spoke of the horrors of Southern justice for the poor. His 25-year-old Atlanta organization opposes the death penalty and provides counsel for death row prisoners who have been shamefully treated by many Southern legal systems. He talked about mentally retarded clients who had been denied legal counsel and were eventually executed. About court-appointed attorneys who slept through court sessions. Even about one alcoholic lawyer who gave out the number of a tavern--he spent so much time there that it was his de facto office.

Then came a speaker who upended all of our collective self-pity for the rigors of "Internet time." Thanks to a movie about his life released earlier this year, a new generation is hip to this speaker, Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, once a middleweight fighter from New Jersey. Carter, who's on Bright's board, ended up spending 20 years in prison for murder until a federal court released him in 1985, citing highly racist police and prosecutorial conduct. With eyes twinkling and the booming cadence of a preacher, 63-year-old Carter held the crowd in thrall, albeit sometimes a squirming thrall as he recounted his lost years and the ugliness of racism.

Bright and Carter were not preaching to the Valley's liberal choir. I sat next to powerhouse investment banker Frank Quattrone of Credit Suisse/First Boston, who strongly favors the death penalty. Yet he and his wife gave up an evening to listen, and will at least consider giving this cause some support. Why? "There's not a snowball's chance in hell I'd be here if it weren't for Mike and Kathy. They're dear friends," Quattrone says.

Good Example. The Levinthals have been quiet givers to many causes for a long time. Kathy's stepfather is Judge H. Lee Sarokin, the federal judge who ultimately freed Hurricane Carter on a writ of habeas corpus. A couple of Thanksgivings ago they learned about Bright's work and about the shoestring budget he and nine lawyers have to provide prisoners with representation (each lawyer makes less than $30,000 per year). As self-effacing as Kirsch is brash, Mike told the gathering: "We knew we had to do something special." So they stepped up. This is the first public event they have organized. They were nervous. But they pledged $500,000 toward building a $1 million endowment.

The death penalty is a controversial subject. I know I waffle. I think I'm against it until some creep like Timothy McVeigh blows up a building and I hear myself hissing, "I hope he fries." It doesn't matter so much to me if Quattrone, who was clearly moved by the speakers, writes a check or changes his mind on the death penalty. But it is hugely important that the Levinthals set an example to show powerful people that some issues matter, even if they don't directly benefit them or their businesses. As Americans, we're all diminished if we ignore any act of injustice.

The Levinthals' devotion to supporting justice and civil rights stands to inspire others to work on their own causes, whatever they are. Within two days, the event had raised $200,000. More is coming. "An anonymous gift wouldn't have brought 100 people out to hear this story," says Mike. Adds Kathy: "Everybody in Silicon Valley is working so hard they don't know how to spend their money. They need an impassioned friend to call and say, `I care about this."' They need, and are finally getting, leadership.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.