Marc Benioff: Act Charitably Now, Not Later

by Marc Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce.com. Originally published on Forbes.com

I have been on hundreds of panels. I left my vacation in Hawaii to do this one. I knew it was important. I didn’t know it would change how I view my life.

This particular panel was being led by Bruce Upbin, the managing editor of Forbes.  It included two Silicon Valley venture capitalists Marc Andreessen and Jim Breyer, along with Dr. Cheryl Dorsey, a Harvard-trained pediatrician, former White House fellow, and now the president of Echoing Green, a pioneer in the social entrepreneurship movement.

Bruce kicked off the discussion by talking about “the wall coming down between money for good and money to make money.” Cheryl immediately pointed out that the boundaries today are blurred. “The silo-ed mentality of nonprofit versus for-profit is so anachronistic,” she said. Entrepreneurs “just don’t see the world in that way any longer.” Marc Andreessen extended the thought, offering that companies today have a “larger purpose” or “moral energy behind a company [that] can be extremely motivating.” Jim advocated the power of that same “energy”, one he sees in Etsy, and says provides an “enormous advantage” when recruiting.

Then Bruce asked me to speak about how companies can become a venturesome, social-minded organization, or as he also put it, “a good corporation.” Honestly, I felt intimidated. The audience included a number of great philanthropic leaders such as Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett, who was sitting in the front row. Even the great Oprah was there. (I was excited to meet her; I love Oprah.)

But when it comes to philanthropy, I have one pitch, and it’s been the same since the founding of our company 13 years ago: the 1/1/1 model of integrated corporate philanthropy. The 1/1/1 model, like Salesforce.com’s business model, operates on a “pay as you go” model.  When we started Salesforce.com, we took one percent of our equity, one percent of our profit in the form of product donations and one percent of all of our employees’ time and put it into a 501(c)(3) public charity. 

Marc Benioff at one of the first Foundation events
Marc Benioff at one of the first Foundation activities
That was extremely easy for us at the time because we had no employees, we had no profit, and we had no equity. Today, we have almost 10,000 employees and nearly $3 billion in revenue. We have been able to give almost 400,000 hours of community service, provide our product for free or a deep discount to more than 16,000 nonprofits, and have given $40 million in grants to support organizations we care about such as The Red Cross, United Way, and the UN Food Programme. Sharing the model with other companies has also extended its power; Google adopted parts of the 1/1/1 model, creating a $1 billion foundation. On the personal side of things, my family’s philanthropic giving is focused on building a next-generation children’s hospital with the University of California San Francisco.

Before I started Salesforce.com, I worked at Oracle for 13 years, and in my last few years there I was constantly questioning myself: Do I want to be in business or do I want to be in philanthropy?  At that time I felt I had to finish business, and then I could go cut my check and do my philanthropic work.  But then I had a breakthrough when I went to a conference in 1997 and learned that you can combine these two ideas. There’s no reason why your business, your personal philanthropy and your corporate philanthropy can’t be integrated. On the contrary: if you can get all the wood behind one arrow, that’s how you’re going to increase your impact.

The Power of Pay as You Go

There are several ways to approach philanthropy and it’s necessary to note they are all worthy and good. Two amazing philanthropists, both in their early eighties, have plans to give all of their wealth away by the time they die, but they have very different strategies for doing so.

The first is the Oracle of Omaha, Warren Buffett, who in 2006 agreed to give 99% of his fortune to The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  Within 10 years of his death, all of his money will have to be given away.  That means the vast majority of his wealth will be given to causes or organizations that he will never know; he has put his complete trust in this accelerated spend down execution led by The Gates Foundation.  I call this model, “pay at the end,” and this is the established philanthropy model. Buffett told me that while his wife encouraged him to be more philanthropic as his life went on, he believed his impact would be larger with the total sum at the end of his life. Maybe in money, but maybe not in meaning. 

The second octogenarian is Chuck Feeney, the founder of DFS stores, who adheres to the “pay as you go” model and who has already given away his $7.5 billion fortune.  He knows exactly where it went, and was personally involved in the development of his philanthropic strategy—and its execution.  While the amount of money Feeney will have given away will be less than one-sixth of Buffett’s, the amounts and targets all have had Feeney’s direct input.  And his input has yielded a great return: using the same talents that made him successful in business, Chuck Feeney has created some of the most amazing universities in the world, and pioneered incredible philanthropic efforts world wide from AIDS Relief in South Africa to Human Rights in Vietnam.

Today, Feeney has less than $2 million in his bank account and I can only imagine he’s enjoyed giving the rest away.

We are in a golden age of philanthropy where people are giving away spectacular amounts of wealth to help the world and where even very young people are getting involved. Nothing shows this more than “The Giving Pledge,” founded by Buffett and Gates to encourage billionaires to give away half their fortunes by the time they die.  The money itself does not have to go to any philanthropic pursuit; it simply needs to be transferred to a philanthropic trust or foundation.  The goals of these trusts and foundations are unknown, and when they will be spent down also unknown.  There is a tremendous amount of attention on this model to see what will result from this commitment. The opportunity is enormous—hundreds of billions over a few decades. The potential is spectacular.

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. That eliminates the benefits that come with sharing, and it also deprives many of experiencing the joy that comes with seeing measurable impact and progress.

Unexpected Grace

​At some point in the panel discussion about our model, Marc Andreessen chimed in, “Salesforce.com has been a huge inspiration in the Valley for the new generation of entrepreneurs that have followed.”  Then, I was surprised when Cheryl started to speak about how her nonprofit, Echoing Green, has benefited from the 1/1/1 model and uses our Salesforce product at no cost.

One of Echoing Green’s fellows, Taylor Downs, was working at a nonprofit combating HIV/AIDS in South Africa, and found piles of paperwork with life-saving information in them that simply weren’t being used—“mountains of dead data,” he called it. This sparked him to launch his own social enterprise, Vera Solutions, which uses a free Salesforce account to manage, organize and access critical data to help nonprofits get to key information that was once buried in paper and spreadsheets.

Seeing all these connections at once snapped me into an incredible state and changed everything.  I felt like I had just taken some kind of a happiness pill.​ I realized that philanthropy had been integrated into so many areas of my life; it had created something bigger and more interconnected than I had understood before. When it comes down to it, philanthropy isn’t just about big gifts; it’s about participation. It’s about the grace that comes from working together, the grace that connects us, and that connects everything together. Nothing feels better.

See the panel discussion with Benioff at the Forbes 400 Summit on Philanthropy: