How Marc Benioff and Other Tech Titans Are Disrupting Philanthropy

Leaving traffic-choked San Francisco and heading south on the Pacific Coast Highway feels a bit like entering paradise—tiny hamlets, the wave-buffeted coastline, rolling green hills and fields. South of Half Moon Bay, there’s a highway turnoff to a speck of a town called Pescadero. After a short drive inland, cell service disappears. Soon enough, I come to a lowkey ranch gate with an electronic keypad—the TomKat Ranch, owned by Bay Area power couple Tom Steyer and Kat Taylor. On this particular March morning, a herd of deer leaped and bounded across the rutted dirt track.

I’ve come to TomKat to learn about their particular style of philanthropy. Steyer made his name as the founder of Farallon Capital, a San Francisco-based hedge fund whose investments in everything from a troubled Indonesian bank to Australian coal made him a billionaire. Steyer left the firm in 2012, refocused his investments primarily on alternative energy and restyled himself as a Democratic counterweight to the ultraconservative Koch brothers. With the election of Donald Trump, Steyer took a bigger role on the national stage by backing a movement to impeach the president—you probably saw him in ubiquitous ads on cable news calling for Trump’s ouster.

Tom Steyer and Kat Taylor. Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for J/P HRO Gala

Taylor, the CEO of Oakland, Calif.-based Beneficial State Bank, is equally altruistic but lower profile. “We’ve had a lot of advantage in our life,” she says, perched on her living room couch while two chow chows and a pug keep a watchful eye. “With this kind of privilege comes huge responsibility to be part of making this country the best place to live and work for all. And it’s not, right now, at all.”

TomKat Ranch, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and Beneficial State Bank seek to wed commerce and philanthropy. The bank, the result of a merger between OneCalifornia Bank, which Taylor and Steyer founded, and ShoreBank Pacific, operates in California, Oregon and Washington. It functions like an ordinary bank except that it is required to reinvest all of its profits in social and environmental projects in the communities it serves. TomKat Ranch conducts long-term soil-science studies and conservation work in order to understand how to raise healthy cattle sustainably. The ranch sells the beef it produces under the label LeftCoast Grassfed.

Taylor and Steyer evolved their approach of weaving together social, environmental and commercial goals over the years. “Tom was running Farallon—I was raising a family, and I sat on a lot of nonprofit boards—and we were philanthropists in the common sense,” Taylor says. “We gave money to institutions that we supported or institutions that our friends and family asked us to support.”

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That began to change in 2004 when George W. Bush beat John Kerry, whom Steyer and Taylor supported, to win the presidency. Taylor and Steyer began making “significant investments” in the ranch and bank “where we could take a systems approach to food and finance.” At the ranch, this means a model dubbed total impact measurement and management, which calculates the monetized values of six qualities: economic sustainability, animal welfare, human health, biodiversity, water quality and greenhouse gas sequestration.

That fusion of a business mentality with social and environmental goals presaged a powerful trend in the Bay Area tech community toward what’s become known as venture philanthropy. As tech fortunes have ballooned, the model, which is also characterized by donor involvement, has become increasingly influential.

“Twenty years ago the concept of venture philanthropy got its start in Silicon Valley because tech entrepreneurs began thinking about whether their innovative approaches with technology could help them address environmental and social issues,” says Fran Seegull, the executive director of the U.S. Impact Investing Alliance at the Ford Foundation.

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