A cohort of foundations and tech billionaires — including MacKenzie Scott, Jack Dorsey, Eric Schmidt and Craig Newmark — are backing a new five-year philanthropic fund directed at creating better quality jobs and a more sturdy social safety net, the group said Tuesday.
It's a laudable mission, but one that, in some ways, runs counter to the recent wave of worker backlash that has been taking place at some of the very companies that made people like Scott, Dorsey and Schmidt billionaires to begin with.
The Families and Workers Fund, as it's called, launched in April 2020 as a partnership by the Ford Foundation and Schmidt's company Schmidt Futures in response to the unemployment crisis caused by the pandemic. As mass layoffs swept the country, the two organizations teamed up to launch an emergency grant program focused on giving out cash to people in the U.S. who suddenly, desperately needed it. "We were really concerned that we needed to see the same level of coordination around the economic and equity crisis of COVID as we did around the health crisis of COVID," said Rachel Korberg, executive director of the fund.
Now, with this new five-year commitment, which also includes donations from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Skoll Foundation, among others, the group is trying to address some of the very economic challenges that the tech industry is so often accused of exacerbating.
"In crises you get opportunities to press reset," said Korberg. "People are looking for new opportunities. Many people don't want to go back to the jobs they have. This is an opportunity to press reset."
Big Tech is known for its sumptuous salaries and benefits packages for corporate employees. But tech companies have frequently fought efforts to include gig workers and other lower-wage workers in those benefits. That's to say nothing of the plight of content moderators, who police the darkest corners of social networks like Twitter and YouTube yet don't receive the benefit of being full-time employees.
That complexity of tech donors' involvement in this specific effort isn't lost on Korberg. "I will not sit here and say that there's never been a disagreement with our funders. There are moments of differing perspectives, for sure," she said, noting that the fund is also backed by "the two largest social justice philanthropies in the world" — Ford and Open Society Foundations. "Not all of our founders have the same world view."
But Korberg said the input from tech donors has also been helpful when it comes to implementing programs like the cash transfers. "Schmidt Futures and Jack Dorsey bring world-class expertise in delivery," Korberg said, "How do you actually get it done?"
Over the course of last year, the fund doled out $10 million in grants to 30 grassroots groups, which gave that money to 215,000 families. Along the way, the fund picked up donors from the tech industry, including Scott, who publicly named the fund as one of the hundreds of organizations to which she donated more than $4 billion last year. Dorsey, Korberg said, joined the fund earlier this year and has appointed Matthew Goudeau, who leads Dorsey's #startsmall philanthropic giving, to sit on its advisory board. And Eric Braverman, CEO of Schmidt Futures, will co-chair the fund going forward, along with Ford Foundation President Darren Walker.
The $10 million in grants for direct cash transfers "exceeded" the fund's initial expectations, Korberg said, but they won't be a core part of the fund's work going forward. "The need that people have in this country for cash is so huge, it's not something philanthropy could or should try to fix," she said.
While the fund does donate to groups that engage in advocacy campaigns, it is steering clear of direct politics. Instead, true to its tech backers, it's opting to donate to projects that improve delivery of benefits. One grant, Korberg said, went to a nonprofit called The Workers Lab, which is working on creating income passports for gig workers who currently struggle to prove their eligibility in unemployment systems. Another went to New America to support a research project that analyzed what worked and didn't in the unemployment insurance delivery system last year. The fund also recently held an open call for projects and received 300 pitches, Korberg said.
Korberg attributes at least some of the fund's direction to the experience of its donors from the tech sector. "COVID is changing tech philanthropy. We have tech philanthropists who have joined us who haven't worked on economic issues before and didn't see that as a space for their funding," she said.
This story has been updated to clarify the fund's advocacy work.