Micah McElroy

  • Fellowship year:2020-2021
  • University: Columbia University
  • Dissertation Topic/Category: United States
  • Dissertation Title: The Disruption of Philanthropy in the San Franciso Bay Area
  • This dissertation studies how Silicon Valley created an ethic of giving that diverged from established practices of philanthropy, one that understood social problems and distributed surplus wealth in ways that reflected the region's distinctive material and cultural context. It argues that the factors that made Silicon Valley a hub of technological and financial enterprise also made its elite unreceptive to local giving or appeals based on moral obligation, earning the region a reputation for stinginess. Starting in the 1980s, however, a wealth of advisors sought to cultivate a new model of giving amenable to high-tech entrepreneurs and the dictates of an age of austerity. Their work culminated in modes of giving such as venture philanthropy, which advised nonprofit organizations to defer to the preferences of entrepreneurs, forgoing appeals based on moral or social justice claims in favor of a transactional language of return on investment, impact, and quantification. While encouraging greater levels of giving, Silicon Valley's entrepreneurial philanthropy also had uneven consequences for both the local nonprofit sector and the vulnerable populations that they served. Organizations that provided essential services to the poor, for example, suffered a lack of funding because they could not appeal to the norms of Silicon Valley philanthropists. By studying the history of Silicon Valley, this dissertation demonstrates how place, context, and an understudied array of advisors shape the practice of philanthropy, as well as the way in which nonprofit organizations are able to address social problems.