The new philanthropists – tech entrepreneurs giving while living

5 Dec 2011

Photo of Thomas Tierney used by permission of The Philanthropy Roundtable

Scarce resources and the growing needs of society are driving innovation when it comes to philanthropy, says Thomas Tierney, chairman of The Bridgespan Group and a long time board member of eBay. Technology has become a major enabler in the field.

Tierney surprised many when he moved away from a very lucrative career as chief executive of the very successful consultancy firm Bain & Company back in 2000, to co-found The Bridgespan Group, a non-profit consulting firm serving the non-profit sector, of which he is now chairman. It is a move he describes as one “from success to significance”.

He recently co-authored Give Smart: Philanthropy that Gets Results with Joel L Fleishman, but the book is just part of a wider ecosystem that includes the website, designed to “help philanthropists make better decisions and get better results from their giving”.

Technology and the internet, said Tierney, is driving Bridgespan’s ability to share its knowledge and expertise. As well as the website, there’s a quarterly newsletter, webcasts and various LinkedIn groups with thousands of participants.

“One of our hopes is that the knowledge we are creating if it’s available on the web and through other vehicles like this book and articles become increasingly useful to the people leading philanthropy and non-profit organisations outside the US,” he says.

“Technology is going to be a hugely important enabler, there’s no question whatsoever,” said Tierney. “Of the current fundamental trends in the social sector, one of them is clearly around innovation and technology.

“And it is not technology for sake of technology. It’s literally things that are occurring that could not have occurred before. Our LinkedIn groups would just not have been possible 10 years ago. The .org and the traffic we get, and the way we can now educate through webcasts. We’re reaching people in ways you could not reach them before.

“And business models are evolving – there are many business models donors choose where people can, for example, give money to fund specific needs in classrooms. Technology is changing how we do things, but the other thing is that it’s accelerating learning in ways that you couldn’t even have imagined 15 years ago.

“It used to take a decade for a really powerful idea to be assimilated into non-profit organisations. Now it takes a year or two. Ideas accelerate faster with technology than ever before, so everyone is learning faster, improving faster. That has potential for enormous impact on society.”

eBay’s social impact

After a highly successful career, Tierney receives many requests to sit on corporate boards, but only one has successfully acquired his services and that is eBay, where he has been an independent director since 2003. I’m curious why eBay, and wonder is there a connection with the fact that eBay founder Pierre Omidyar is a very active philanthropist, and is signed up to The Giving Pledge, the initiative of Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet to invite the wealthiest individuals and families in the US to undertake to give over half of their wealth to charity. Former CEO of eBay Jeff Skoll has also signed up, as has Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

“Well, it’s a fair question,” said Tierney. “Given my occupation now in the social sector, my primary orientation is around social impact. eBay attracted me because of the underlying theme of social impact within its business model. At its core, eBay is around enabling individuals to engage in commerce and the marketplaces are all about helping people buy things and sell things that they otherwise could not buy or sell.

“It was that business model that originally attracted me – along with Pierre Omidyar, who is an outstanding entrepreneur and a very thoughtful philanthropist, although when I first joined, his philanthropy was in the early stages.

“The values of eBay are not just about making quarterly profit, although that’s always important, they are about building an outstanding institution in service of the world and that’s not just hyperbole,” said Tierney.

“eBay, the marketplaces, the subsequent acquisition of PayPal, and a lot of the other things that have gone on, mean I hope and suspect that 50 years from now, when I’m gone, eBay will be prosperous and serving society in a robust and large-scale way – in dozens of ways that we can’t quite anticipate today because the world will have evolved and technology will have involved.”

There just aren’t that many companies like that, said Tierney. “eBay is an e-commerce player now in its second decade and you can count on one hand the number of highly successful internet pioneers that have reached scale and are in their second decade. I’ve never had a boring meeting at eBay and I feel privileged to contribute in any way I can. It is exciting to serve on a board if you feel like you’re doing something special.”

Giving while living

Returning to initiatives like The Giving Pledge, I asked Tierney if he has seen a particular trend of giving among the new generation of tech entrepreneurs.

Yes, said Tierney, and it is all part of a new megatrend which is “giving while living” – a phrase originally attributed to Irishman Chuck Feeney, founder of Atlantic Philanthropies – and incidentally, the funder of Bridgespan.

“It is the most powerful philanthropic trend of our time. Twenty years ago, much of the money was parked in foundations, and people got really seriously involved in philanthropy at the back end of their lives. Today people are living longer, and giving earlier.

“And when people are giving away their own money they tend to care more about the results and they tend to spend time, not just money – they tend to get involved.

“Tech entrepreneurs are starting to become more active philanthropically at a much younger age. So you see a Pierre Omidyar or a Jeff Skoll leaving traditional careers and not starting new companies in the traditional sense but starting companies that are socially oriented. In Jeff’s case, it is Participant Media, among other things, in Pierre’s case, it’s the Pierre Omidyar Network, both as an investor in the traditional sense, as well as a philanthropist.

“You see gifts from people like Mark Zuckerberg, still a very busy guy, but stepping forward with a major gift to help Newark public schools – all of these events create role models and reinforce this notion of giving while living, getting engaged not just through writing cheques but giving time, and this reinforces a longer-term view that you can be doing this for decades.”

And that giving of time is crucial, said Tierney. “What the technology entrepreneurs, in particular, bring to the field is an orientation around innovation, around problem solving – and an impatience. Technology moves fast, and tech entrepreneurs tend to move fast, so there’s this injection of creativity that is really exciting. And the more and more role models and success stories that are out there, the more you have people say, ‘you know, I want to do that, too’.

This is where The Giving Pledge is so important, said Tierney. “It draws attention to philanthropy in an incredibly positive way, all these billionaires stepping forward saying, ‘I’m going to give half my wealth back to society’. Instead of waiting until they’re 80 years old they’re asking the question when they are 40, when they are 50 – or even 20 something: ‘What am I going to do with my wealth?'”

Despite much talk of current economic gloom hitting philanthropy, Tierney remains inherently optimistic. “Look at all the philanthropic innovations, people are learning to do more with less, how to give smart. We need to be more innovative than ever before to serve our communities with scarcer resources and greater needs. That drives innovation. It’s a force for change, for innovation that is incredibly exciting.”

Thomas J Tierney, director of eBay and founder and chairman of The Bridgespan Group, will be in Dublin on 8 December to deliver the 4th Annual Ray Murphy Lecture. Click here for further information.

Ann O’Dea is the CEO and co-founder of Silicon Republic and the founder of Future Human