Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff: The big giver

Q&A: Not your typical 6-foot, 5-inch multibillionaire, Benioff is urging his tech brethren to follow his philanthropic example and give more to their communities.

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Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff Getty Images

At the rate Marc Benioff's going, the world may remember him more for his philanthropy than for any of his accomplishments as a software mogul.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. The same might be said of Bill Gates. Microsoft's iconic co-founder has spent over $28 billion to combat poverty and improve the health of people living in the developing world. (Hey, what's Windows compared with helping to save millions of lives?)

Catching up to Gates, one of the world's richest people, is not likely. But Benioff, with a net worth estimated around $3 billion, has not waited until the end of his tech career to get started. In fact, the 6 -foot, 5-inch Benioff has emerged as Silicon Valley's most prominent philanthropist -- even while remaining as active as ever as CEO of Salesforce.com, the company he co-founded in 1999 -- leading by example.

Salesforce runs a program through its philanthropic foundation where the company donates 1 percent of its equity, 1 percent of its employees' time, and 1 percent of its products to charity. What's more, Benioff and his wife, Lynne, made a $100 million gift to the UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital in 2010. Earlier this year, they followed with another $100 million donation to UCSF and Oakland Children's Hospital.

Earlier in the year, Benioff partnered with Tipping Point Community, a San Francisco organization, which awards grants to regional nonprofits, to form SF Gives. The goal was to raise $10 million within 60 days to fund anti-poverty efforts in the region. The initiative got under way in March. By May, 20 companies had pledged $500,000 apiece.

Benioff has also accompanied his myriad philanthropic efforts by urging his tech brethren to do more to give back to the community

That call to help the needy comes at a critical juncture in San Francisco's history. This has always been a boom-and-bust city and right now San Francisco is enjoying one of the biggest bursts of growth in its history. But as more tech companies establish outposts in the city and thousands of affluent workers move in, critics have blamed the industry's growing presence for pricing longtime residents out of the housing market. Tensions have occasionally boiled over with street demonstrations protesting tenant evictions and even sporadic attacks on buses shuttling tech employees between San Francisco and their workplaces in Silicon Valley.

For Benioff, whose grandfather, Marvin Lewis, was a San Francisco political leader and the force behind the creation of the Bay Area Rapid Transit network, that makes it all the more urgent for philanthropists to get more active.

"Through philanthropy, we can create models that ease the burden on those who are getting impacted," he says, arguing that "good works" can help mitigate the social dislocations caused by San Francisco's latest gold rush.

"I think it's something that comes from deep within. It's authentic and it's real, and probably it's a learned trait -- it's not something that you're born with," says Tipping Point's founder, Daniel Lurie. "Marc's one of the great leaders. We've only worked together for a few months but it's been refreshing. It's just incredible to experience his enthusiasm. It's contagious. He's nonstop."

Benioff was at it again this week when he donated $3.5 million to support early childhood development in Oakland. CNET caught up with Benioff by phone. The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Q: Among tech CEOs, you're one of the biggest philanthropists out there. What's your motivation?
Marc Benioff: I've always felt very deeply that that the more successful that I am, the more I can give and nothing makes me happier than giving. So it's quite selfish actually.

How do you vet and choose where to make your donations?
Benioff: What we're doing right now is executing the same vision for philanthropy that we execute in business -- which is that tactics dictate strategy. Over the last 15 or 20 years, I've had the opportunity to do a lot of philanthropy with a lot of different organizations all over the world. But what I found is that I was effectual in certain situations and was not as effectual in other situations.

Can you cite an example?
Benioff: When I partnered with UCSF, I was able to see where my money was being used. I realized that I could operate at scale and have the greatest impact. These were the things that were extremely important to me. We've worked with a lot of different organizations globally but we really found that we were most effectual locally. So our ability is mostly to work through others and find (organizations) that can have the greatest impact. We're using UCSF, for example, to operate globally. The pre-term birth program is a global program but it's executed locally. And that's just a model that has really come to be best for me.

You've been in the industry for quite some time. As the years go by, do you think other successful tech executives will follow suit and make use of their success in a more public-regarding way?
Benioff: We're continuing to look for new models to bring in new people to experience the same joy that we get from giving. And, of course, the first model that we introduced was when we started Salesforce in 1999, we also created the 1-1-1 model. Our goal was not just to create a new technology model or business model but also to create a new philanthropic model. That was absolutely the third piece of the puzzle and that I wasn't interested in doing just another technology company.

Where are you with the 1-1-1 program?
Benioff: That 1-1-1 model has had tremendous success at Salesforce. We have done over a half a million hours of community service all over the world. We've run over 20,000 nonprofits and NGOs on our servers for free. We also have given away more than $50 million out of the Salesforcefoundation.org. When it comes to getting other companies to come in, we've had some adopt 1-1-1, like Yelp and Google and others. But others weren't sure. They didn't want to do something like 1-1-1 so we created SFgives.org and basically said do something then. Commit to giving away some significant amount of money.

How much is that?
Benioff: Initially, $500,000 over five years, which is not very much for a company like Microsoft and Apple, which have joined SFgives, and make the commitment that says if you're going to do business in the city of San Francisco, that you're giving back where you're making money. And let's create a better community in this boom time.

 

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