Stepping into the powerful position of president and CEO of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation after the post was vacated last year in a public workplace bullying and misconduct scandal, Nicole Taylor of Menlo Park says she is on a mission to bring the foundation past its history of workplace tumult and put the "community" back in the community foundation.
Despite the presence of the word "community" in its title, though, the foundation is no small mom-and-pop grant maker. It's one of the wealthiest foundations in the world: Its assets total around $13.5 billion.
It was formed in 2007 following the merger of the Community Foundation Silicon Valley and the Peninsula Community Foundation. Now, it's the largest community foundation and the third-largest foundation in the country, after the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Open Society Foundation.
It also boasts a donor roster of a number of Silicon Valley's iconic and high net-worth presences. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Dr. Priscilla Chan have contributed a combined value of about $1.96 billion in Facebook stock, according to Forbes. WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum gave the foundation $556 million in Facebook stock in 2014. Other donors include Reed Hastings, Netflix CEO; Sergey Brin, Google co-founder; Jack Dorsey, Twitter CEO; Jeff Skoll, former Ebay president; Dustin Moskivitz, Facebook co-founder; Larry Ellison, Oracle co-founder and chairman; and Nick Woodman, GoPro founder, according to Forbes.
The organization also serves as an administrative partner in the Pleasanton Weekly's annual Holiday Fund giving program.
A shaken foundation
Despite the foundation's wealth, or perhaps, in part because of what media reports have characterized as a grow-at-all-costs attitude among its top executives in the past, the last year has been a challenging one for the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. In April 2018, its second-in-command officer, Mari Ellen Reynolds Loijens, who worked as chief business, development and brand officer, resigned after an investigative article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy reported former co-workers' allegations that Loijens had created a toxic culture of bullying, embarrassing sexual remarks and oppressive office behavior within the foundation that caused employee turnover.
Loijens had led a team of about 40 people and oversaw the foundation's donor-advised funds, which represented about 83 percent of the foundation's assets, the Chronicle of Philanthropy reported.
Legal investigations followed Loijens' resignation, and the foundation's CEO and president, Emmett Carson, was put on administrative leave.
One report, released in June 2018 by law firm Boies Schiller Flexner, found that, in addition to the specific allegations against Loijens, "there were certain widespread workplace culture issues at (the foundation), including a fear of speaking out or reporting workplace issues out of concern for retaliation, as well as a distrust of (human resources) leadership." Carson stepped down from his position that day.
Following Carson's departure, board member Greg Avis stepped in to act as the foundation's interim president and CEO.
Enter Nicole Taylor, who started working as the foundation's new president and CEO in mid-December. She's a longtime Silicon Valley resident who left the region in early 2017 to work in Arizona, first at Arizona State University as its deputy vice president and dean of students, and then as vice president of the ASU Foundation.
She said she considers the Bay Area home, having attended Stanford for her bachelor's degree in human biology and her master's degree in education; taught in Oakland public schools; worked at the East Bay Community Foundation for more than 15 years, including six as its CEO; led the Thrive Foundation for Youth in Silicon Valley as president and CEO; and worked as associate vice provost of student affairs and dean of community engagement and diversity at Stanford.
During a recent interview, she explained that, more than four months into her tenure, her efforts so far have involved a juggling act of getting to know and introducing herself to the foundation's staff, the communities that make up Silicon Valley, and the foundation's donors. "I had to make sure that I could be as present internally as I needed to be, but also present externally, and that's been a lot of juggling, ... a lot of long days and evenings," she said.
Coming through this time of "transition," as Taylor terms it, "There was a lot of work that was done on culture and getting staff to have agency and voice that they may not have had before."
The foundation created a "culture task force" in which staff drafted its set of values. Among the values identified are courage, collaboration, respect, inclusion and accountability, she said.
Now, she said, the foundation is aiming to start a "new chapter." As part of that endeavor, it's preparing to launch a strategic planning process, she added. "We really haven't gone through that kind of comprehensive strategic process, at least for a while, and we plan on it being inclusive."
The process will involve outreach to staff, community members, donors and civic leaders, she said. "We are their community foundation."
In doing so, she said, she's hoping to promote leadership within the organization. She said it's time for her to talk with the foundation's leadership team and managers through questions like: What does it mean for them to lead? What does she need to address, and what can they tackle? How can the leadership team lead the organization together?
She said that she's interested in not being the "only spokesperson for the organization."
"How can we make sure (people who work with donors and in the community) can speak about who we're becoming and what we care about and what we value?" she added.
Big questions, like what that actually means, what it looks like, how the foundation demonstrates the values it claims to espouse, how employees and staff members at the foundation can be heard and empowered, how she should communicate with those staff members, and what the foundation's role should be in the community and with donors are all matters they're talking about now, she said.
Workplace atmosphere aside, the foundation has faced criticism on other fronts: specifically, that it's not very transparent, that donors aren't required to spend very much of what they put into the funds, and that a lot of the funds that are distributed aren't spent locally.
A May 2018 Atlantic article by Alana Semuels argues that the type of charitable account that holds most of the foundation's assets, the "donor advised fund," allows donors major tax breaks for giving money or stock, but doesn't come with transparency or spending requirements.
Philanthropy ethicist and Stanford professor Rob Reich, in his recently-published book, "Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How it Can Do Better," describes donor-advised funds as a "kind of kudzu that is eating the U.S. charitable sector" and now represents the largest recipient of charitable contributions in the past few years in this country.
Donor-advised funds give donors the immediate tax benefits of a charitable contribution, but permit delays to occur between when the fund is created and when contributions are delivered to nonprofits, he explains. According to Reich, donor-advised funds "represent an opportunity to warehouse philanthropic assets with no legal requirement to make allocations from the fund."
"The ability to satisfy the payout rule via administrative expenses or payments to donor-advised funds constitutes an evasion of the rule's purpose."
Taylor doesn't see it that way.
"We as a sector haven't talked about our impact enough, and I think that has led to the feeling, right or wrong, that money isn't getting out to the community, that people are parking their funds at donor-advised funds, and not moving them out," she said.
"For community foundations," she continued, "that's not true. And for donor-advised funds in general, that's not true. ... Donor-advised funds give out anywhere between 14 to 25% every year out of their funds, and our donors are no exception."
If funds do become dormant, she said, the foundation staff works with donors to make sure they get the funds out.
She said that the foundation staff is now working to contact every donor every quarter. That means they check in with donors, make sure they have ideas about where to give based on their interests, and offer help and planning guidance. "We're really trying to be proactive," she added.
In working with donors, she said, foundation staff members get to know donors and understand the issues and kinds of organizations they care about, as well as the kind of impact they want their philanthropy to have. Some donors just want everything on the foundation website; others want staff to sit down with the family and talk to them in person about their giving options, she explained.
In 2018, the foundation gave a total of $1.4 billion in grants, foundation spokesperson Sue McAllister reported. Only about $114 million, or 8 percent, was given within San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. Bay Area counties outside of those two counties claimed an additional $380 million; the bulk of the foundation's grant dollars, $795 million, was given in the rest of California and the U.S.; and $69 million went to international recipients.
It's a fact, Taylor acknowledged, that donors' philanthropic interests sometimes fall outside of Silicon Valley. Perhaps they want to give to their hometown or city, or perhaps they're passionate about addressing international problems. Or maybe a fund from a Silicon Valley-based corporation a type of fund the foundation also oversees has other locations in other communities its leaders want to support philanthropically.
Then, foundation staff members make calls to the foundation's network of other community foundations and international nonprofits to do their due diligence to make sure the donor's dollars will be spent responsibly, Taylor explained.
"Part of our role, as is for any community foundation, is to help the donors be the best philanthropists they can be," she said.
One thing the foundation is trying to do more of, she added, is to help donors see that the problems they care about addressing in other places around the world happen in their own communities too.
For example, she said, some donors care a lot about problems of water access in certain areas of Africa.
"When I brought up that there's some water issues right here, in Santa Clara County, they were shocked," she said.
"Even mentioning something like that has the donor thinking, 'Huh, it's not either-or, it's both-and. I can continue to do the work in the villages that I have been, and maybe I need to think about how I can impact that issue here at home,'" she said, noting that by informing donors of the challenges their own communities face, she can "(help) them do what they really want to do and (expand) their view of what they can be doing locally."
A shifting outlook
Coming back to Silicon Valley after two years away, she said, she was surprised by how much the place had changed. Or maybe she was seeing it with fresher eyes, she said. There are more people living in RVs and campers on El Camino Real than she remembered; more people living two or three families to a two-bedroom apartment; more people being evicted; more people living just one paycheck away from homelessness.
What's really changed since she left for Arizona, she noted, is that the problems of Silicon Valley are too big to ignore now.
She recounted a recent conversation with the custodian who works at the offices of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, just off of El Camino Real in Mountain View. He told her he was tired, because he's working two jobs and lives two hours away, even as a father of young kids.
"He sleeps literally three hours a day," she said. "And he's not the only one."
Donors and "some of the folks who are running companies," she said, are coming to her asking what they should be doing to address the inequities and human problems that are "literally in our faces every day," she said.
Some of those problems are housing, homelessness, and transportation, as well as the challenges faced by people like her office's custodian, "people like this wonderful man who's working two jobs, driving two hours to get home to be with his little ones, and starting it all over again," she said. "We can't ignore it."
Donors, she said, now see their employees struggling with these problems, or notice that the teachers at their kids' schools are leaving mid-year because they can't afford to stay through the end of the school year. They're asking for more education and information about what's working and what the problems are, while community organizations are asking for more resources, and to talk about the impact they're having.
They're now seeing and talking about these problems in ways they weren't a few years ago, she said. "We're in a position to really help point them to solutions."
Setting the table
But no foundation or organization, company or individual can solve these problems alone, she said. "We have to understand what we can bring to the table. A lot of times, we can set the table. We can bring people together to talk about these issues and bring people from different perspectives."
In addition, she said, the foundation works closely with the public sector, shaping public policy by talking to elected officials at the local, state and federal levels.
"We lobby on bills. We work with mayors, we work with county supervisors. We work with folks in Sacramento on issues that impact this region, and we are unabashed about that," she said.
"I think we're in a unique position to harness that same creativity, that same innovation, that same disruptive spirit that created the Silicon Valley and the success we've had, ... take that, and harness it for these really complicated human problems that we have here."