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Sean Parker and the Perils of Stealth Philanthropy
June 17, 2013

(Janet Camarena is the director of the Foundation Center's San Francisco office and leads the Center's Glasspockets effort.)

Camarena_100I love weddings and I love philanthropy, so I have been following the fallout from Sean Parker’s wedding with growing interest over the last couple of weeks of unrelenting news coverage surrounding the big event. Mr. Parker is the co-founder of Napster and was also Facebook’s first president. To believe the tabloids, the nuptials involved an elaborate staging akin to those of sets for Lord of the Rings crossed with Game of Thrones all under the canopy of old growth redwoods in Northern California.

Unfortunately many new donors fear that philanthropic transparency will lead to being inundated with requests, and instead opt for treating philanthropy like a “stealth mode” operation.

Couple those images with the fact that he apparently did not secure the proper permits, and in the end made a “voluntary payment” to make the whole brouhaha go away (the California Coastal Commission can technically not levy fines), and you have the makings of story that any news cycle will love about billionaires being able to make up the rules as they go along. And that is where philanthropy enters the picture, as when Mr. Parker has tried to catch up to the story and correct the record, he refers to his foundation and its work supporting conservation efforts as a means to demonstrate his commitment to the environment. And given this history of philanthropic support for conservation, he also explains that his goal for the wedding was actually one in which the event would leave the forest in better shape than when he found it, with ample funds included for restoration. 

As a philanthropy observer, that was the sound bite that really grabbed my attention! Sean Parker has a foundation?  Who knew? I was aware of Mr. Parker’s excellent work on the crowdfunding platform Causes, and in fact, we have featured its good work on several occasions here at the Foundation Center, since it is a platform that has helped many nonprofits mobilize their networks to raise millions of dollars for charity. Given his efforts to build Causes soon after making it big with Facebook, it is clear he has made philanthropy, and the technology that can serve as its catalyst, a professional priority. 

What surprised me was the foundation part, as I had not previously heard of its work. So, I looked up the Sean Parker Foundation in our Foundation Directory Online database, which contains profiles of more than 100,000 grantmaking foundations, and I could not initially find any foundation there listing Mr. Parker as its donor, officer, or trustee. So, next I reached out to our data department to see if they had record of it and learned that it is indeed, a new foundation in the process of being added to our database. This means that the only source of public information on the foundation would be its 990-PF tax form, so I reviewed that to get a better idea of Mr. Parker’s philanthropic activities.

Unfortunately, given the nature of the turnaround with tax forms, the most current publicly available form only provides insights into the Sean Parker Foundation’s giving in 2011. At that time, this new foundation had approximately $1.8 million in total assets and had disbursed three grants totaling $225,000 and the funding was given to the Beckley Foundation to support a global initiative for drug policy reform, to Gabrielle’s Angel Foundation for cancer research, and to the Bridge School to support education for developmentally disabled children. All worthy causes, but nothing to indicate his interest in conservation. 

Next I tried his Wikipedia entry, and found some good indication of his philanthropic interests there, and more details about Causes, but nothing more specific about the work of his foundation in the last year. I was able to find one recent gift attributed to Sean Parker through a Google search, which yielded a general donor list for Stand Up to Cancer, indicating either that his foundation’s work on cancer has continued, or that he has multiple giving vehicles through a donor-advised fund or supporting organization, which may serve to administer additional giving on his behalf through a community foundation or banking institution. 

This structure does not reduce the value of his grantmaking, but the lack of transparency for those vehicles make his good work invisible, which puts him at a distinct disadvantage now that he is on the defensive. As a tech pioneer, Mr. Parker could have simply used the online tools at his disposal and voluntarily disclosed his fund or foundation’s grantmaking details and strategies on his own web site, or provided greater detail about it on his Wikipedia profile.

Had he established a web site for his foundation with a list of recently awarded grants, his current giving would now be a matter of public record for all to see, including prying journalists and an unforgiving public. 

Although I cannot speculate as to why Mr. Parker hasn’t chosen to be more open about his foundation, the more private approach is not uncommon in philanthropy. Unfortunately many new donors fear that philanthropic transparency will lead to being inundated with requests, and instead opt for treating philanthropy like a “stealth mode” operation. However, the philanthropic record and reputation private foundations can build ultimately serve the philanthropist, particularly in occasions such as this. For if you don’t tell your own story, others will tell it for you. And more importantly, if no one knows you have a foundation, doesn’t that limit its capacity to do good?

Furthermore, in our work at Glasspockets.org, a web site committed to encouraging greater philanthropic transparency, we have found that online foundation transparency has the power to build public trust and credibility, improve relationships with grantees, facilitate greater collaboration, reduce duplication of effort, and cultivate a community of shared learning. 

The forest Mr. Parker and his bride selected as the setting for their nuptials is called the Ventana Wilderness. In Spanish Ventana means window, which seems fitting since thanks to news and digital media, we now all feel like we got to peek through the reception’s window. Too bad we didn’t have more of a view of his philanthropy leading up to this event, which may have made his efforts at damage control an easier task.

--Janet Camarena

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About Transparency Talk

  • Transparency Talk, the Glasspockets blog, is a platform for candid and constructive conversation about foundation transparency and accountability. In this space, Foundation Center highlights strategies, findings, and best practices on the web and in foundations–illuminating the importance of having "glass pockets."

    The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation Center.

    Questions and comments may be
    directed to:

    Janet Camarena
    Director, Transparency Initiatives
    Foundation Center

    If you are interested in being a
    guest contributor, contact:
    glasspockets@foundationcenter.org

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