(Melissa Moy is special projects associate for Glasspockets. For more information about Marc and Lynne Benioff, and the other Giving Pledgers, visit Foundation Center's Eye on the Giving Pledge.)
Tech billionaire Marc Benioff has a long track record as a philanthropist and as a thought leader who advocates for his corporate philanthropy peers to step up their giving. Despite playing this kind of leadership role in philanthropy circles, it was unexpected to learn that Benioff and his wife Lynne Benioff had recently signed the Giving Pledge, a philanthropy movement started by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet.
From Critic to Converted
Prior to signing the Giving Pledge, Benioff publicly expressed skepticism about the Giving Pledge and also whether fellow Pledger Mark Zuckerberg’s $1 billion gift to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF) amounted to little more than a tax write-off.
Benioff, founder, chairman and CEO of Salesforce, pointed out that grants made from donor-advised funds, such as Zuckerberg’s SVCF donation, are hidden from view. He expressed concerns that the Facebook founder’s gift, however generous, might lack philanthropic impact due to a lack of transparency and accountability in how the money is used.
Regarding his initial skepticism of the Giving Pledge, Benioff had previously said, “But with no outline for immediate philanthropic work or any references to specific actionable projects, we all will have to wait to see what’s achieved—and the donors themselves may never see it.”
So why did the tech leader change his tune and support the Giving Pledge? Perhaps it was the collaborative philanthropy effort and the time the Benioffs spent personally with Bill and Melinda Gates that swayed him.
In the couple’s Giving Pledge letter, the Benioffs said they worked with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to launch University of California San Francisco’s California Preterm Birth Initiative. The Benioffs said they were “thrilled to see the impact of the Giving Pledge through the leadership of Bill & Melinda Gates” over the last six years.
Joining the Giving Pledge was also the Benioffs’ opportunity to “reaffirm our commitment to the health and education of our children, pledging to dedicate the majority of our wealth to philanthropy.” Perhaps Benioff, who in recent years had been actively building philanthropy movements of his own, grew to recognize the potential for scale such movements bring.
- Founder of Salesforce
- Forbes’ Most Innovative Companies: #2 in 2015 (#1, 2011-2014)
- Fortune’s World’s 50 Greatest Leaders: #37 in 2016
- 13% owner of Fitbit
- Personal net worth: $4.2 bilion
Architect of 1/1/1: “Pay as You Go” Model
Salesforce is a leading enterprise cloud computing company, which allows clients to access their software and data over the Internet instead of installing it on computers. Since Salesforce’s establishment in 1999, Benioff has pioneered an innovative way to build the Salesforce empire while also supporting local communities.
Benioff is a fan of strategic giving and a “pay as you go” model. He urges his wealthy peers to give away money as they make it and not “pay at the end,” which had been one of his reservations about the Giving Pledge. In his Salesforce blog, he noted how Buffet will give 99% of his wealth in the last 10 years of his life.
“There’s no reason why your business, your personal philanthropy and your corporate philanthropy can’t be integrated,” Benioff said in his blog.
The Salesforce approach to philanthropy, which Benioff pioneered, is referred to as the 1/1/1 model that facilitates the “pay as you go” approach, in which a company gives to the communities it serves 1% of its equity, 1% of its employee hours and 1% donated product. The 1/1/1 model has influenced how Google and hundreds of corporations give to the community.
Building His Fortune
At 15, Benioff founded Liberty Software, and created games for Atari. Epyx published several of his computer games. By the age of 16, he began earning royalties of $1,500 a month.
Benioff went on to get his Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from the University of Southern California in 1986. While at USC, Benioff interned at apple. Benioff later described how Apple and its co-founder Steve Jobs inspired him, writing in “Beyond the Cloud,” his bestselling memoir: "That summer, I discovered it was possible for an entrepreneur to encourage revolutionary ideas.”
Before creating Salesforce, Benioff worked under Larry Ellison at Oracle Corporation, another Bay Area-based tech giant.
During his 13 years at Oracle, Benioff held numerous executive positions in sales, marketing and product development. At age 23, Oracle named him Rookie of the Year, and three years later, he became the company’s youngest vice-president.
Benioff would eventually launch his multi-billion company from small, start-up roots in a San Francisco apartment in 1999.
In 2016, Benioff made Fortune Magazine’s 50 World’s Greatest Leaders list. Salesforce has regularly topped many of Forbes Magazine’s lists, including Best Place to Work, World’s Most Innovative Company and World’s Most Admired Company.
Power Couple Philanthropy
The Benioffs have been longtime donors to the UCSF Medical Center.
Marc Benioff has also used his influence to catalyze local giving by rallying Bay Area corporations to fight local poverty with SF Gives. The group urges pioneering and influential Bay Area companies to give locally because one in five Bay Area residents lives in poverty.
At the time SF Gives launched, Benioff made personal calls to ask local CEOs to join SF Gives. Participating companies include Google, Levi’s, LinkedIn, Zynga, Box, Jawbone, PopSugar and Dropbox.
Lynne Benioff, a marketing professional, is also a passionate philanthropist. In 2011, the San Francisco Business Times honored her as a fundraising Health Care Hero.
She serves on numerous boards as a trustee for the Presidio Trust; University of California San Francisco Foundation, where she chairs the marketing committee; UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland; Children’s Hospital & Research Center Foundation; and Common Sense Media.
Lynne Benioff’s motivation partially stems from her own hospitalization when she experienced late-stage complications in her pregnancy in 2009. During her month-long stay at UCSF Medical Center, Benioff witnessed the challenges of other patients and families. Since then, Lynne Benioff has been an advocate for higher health care standards, especially for children.
Following this experience, the Benioffs changed their philanthropic focus to health care for children. Most of their personal philanthropy is for UCSF with a $250 million gift to build UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals in San Francisco and Oakland.
In addition to the Benioffs’ personal giving, the Salesforce Foundation has a large philanthropic footprint.
With Benioff’s 1/1/1 model, the foundation focuses giving on 1) technology – offering donated and discounted technologies to nonprofits and higher education; 2) people – encouraging employee engagement, whereby employees have up to seven days off per year to volunteer and can participate in company volunteer efforts; and 3) resources – provide grants in education and Science Technology Engineering Mathematics (STEM) programs.
The foundation has given $14 million to the San Francisco Unified School District to advance STEM education.
In 2014, the San Francisco-based Salesforce Foundation gave $19.5 million in grants and scholarships to organizations and individuals in the United States and overseas, according to federal tax returns.
Significant grant awards that year included: $5 million to the San Francisco Foundation for public and societal benefit; $1.6 million to the UCSF Foundation for higher education; $1 million to Tipping Point, which supports SF Gives; $988,000 to Code.Org, a Seattle-based group that promotes education; $750,000 to Catholic Charities in San Francisco for human services.
The foundation also gave numerous awards, from $100,000 to $300,000, to organizations that supported health, higher education and K-12 education.
Social Justice Supporter
Given Marc Benioff’s passion for philanthropy and his comfort level in using his influence to change the status quo, it’s no surprise that he has taken stands for social justice on a national front. For example, Benioff urged South Carolina to remove the Confederate flag from its state capitol. He supported President Obama’s Equal Pay Measure, which would require large companies to disclose employee compensation broken down by gender, ethnicity, and race. At Salesforce he conducted a compensation analysis and then budgeted $3 million in 2015 to increase wages for 1,000 female Salesforce employees to close the wage gap between men and women.
Benioff has also leveraged the economic power of his company to impact social justice issues. For example, Benioff threatened to pull Salesforce.com business from Indiana and Georgia related to legislation that could potentially discriminate against LGBT people.
In 2015, Benioff led a business-world boycott against Indiana’s religious freedom law, which would have allowed businesses to potentially refuse service to LGBT customers for religious reasons. He also protested Georgia legislation that would give faith-based organizations the option to deny people services based on a “sincerely held religious belief” relating to marriage.
In a relatively short time, the Benioffs have established quite a robust public track record as both philanthropists and philanthropy influencers. And unlike many of their tech peers, much of their giving and activism is done in the public eye, which makes it easier for us all to understand their philanthropic point of view and see what’s next for one of the newest Giving Pledgers.