Reinvention is nothing new in Silicon Valley. This is the region whose pioneers helped remake entire industries, and some of those same pioneers have their eyes set on an industry that, they say, is ripe for innovation – charities.
Frustrated with slow and inefficient non-profits, some of Silicon Valley's elite are bringing about fresh approaches to solving vexing social issues, such as helping the poor and reimagining how students are educated.
And they aren't just bringing money. Social entrepreneurs are bringing their business skills – everything from marketing to operations, along with their enthusiasm and business drive – to transform many nonprofits into savvy, goal-focused businesses.
Active donors and accountability have been growing trends throughout the nonprofit world, but the valley, by some accounts, is leading the way with its deeply ingrained entrepreneurial way of life.
"The rapid generation of wealth in Silicon Valley really shifted the focus to giving while living. Donors aren't waiting until retirement now," says Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, a philanthropist and author of "Giving 2.0," a new book on how to improve one's philanthropy. "We now live in a giving 2.0 world, and the definition of a philanthropist has changed. This is no longer about sympathy. It's about strategy."
She says donors are demanding more research and metrics before funding projects.
Take Thomas Siebel, founder of Siebel Systems, a Silicon Valley software company that was purchased by Oracle in 2005. Mr. Siebel decided to take a new approach to preventing drug abuse. Eschewing counseling and other traditional approaches, the Siebel Foundation took a page out of a business playbook and created a research-based, consumer marketing campaign. The program, called the Meth Project, relies heavily on consumer research like target-market surveys and uses that information to develop graphic advertisements that then saturate a community. The program aims to reach 70 to 90 percent of teens three to five times a week during a campaign.
Many experts say it works. In Montana, where the project was started in 2005, the program reduced adult use of methamphetamines by 72 percent, and teen use by 62 percent (although some researchers dispute those figures and the program's overall impact). The state has dropped from fifth in the rate of meth abuse in 2005 to 39th a few years later, according to the foundation. The White House cited the program as one of the country's most powerful and creative antidrug programs.
"He applied a business approach to solving a social problem and it worked," says Ms. Arrillaga-Andreessen.
While some nonprofits are being nudged to adopt more for-profit-like approaches, other social entrepreneurs are guiding nonprofits to narrow their focus and do only what they do best, according to Beth Kanter, a nonprofit scholar and author of "The Networked Nonprofit," a 2010 book on using social media to advance philanthropy.
She points to one example, MomsRising.org, which advocates for family-friendly laws. "MomsRising didn't reinvent the wheels and instead just focused on what they were enthusiastic about – mobilizing people," says Ms. Kanter. Instead of operating as a traditional nonprofit, the group outsourced much of its operations, allowing it to run virtually and more nimbly.
Education is one of the hot areas getting attention from social entrepreneurs because it can benefit from technology, according to Arrillaga-Andreessen.
A free, world-class education to anyone is the promise of the Khan Academy of Mountain View, Calif. It creates free, educational math and science videos on more than 2,600 topics aimed at elementary and high school students. Salman Khan, the organization's founder, wasn't trained as a professional academic, but he argues that it's allowed him to reinvent an education model by finding new ways to engage his students in the lesson. His lessons have been viewed more than 84 million times, according to the Khan Academy.
When Danielle Strachman wanted to found a charter school in San Diego that would educate in a new way, she saw the need to start with fresh eyes at learning. She researched homeschooling and saw that when children play an active role in defining the curriculum, they learn a lot more.
"If a child likes bugs, for example, there are all sorts of ways that you can incorporate that into a lesson plan," says Ms. Strachman, who helped found the San Diego-based Innovations Academy. The school serves K-through-8 public-school students on a first-come, first-served basis and educates them with child-led projects instead of textbooks.
Now, as a Silicon Valley-based consultant, Strachman is helping empower exceptional young people to pursue technological innovation. It's that kind of innovative thinking applied to longstanding issues that makes entrepreneurial nonprofits enticing to many in Silicon Valley.
"Today's donors want to navigate the possibilities and fund the proactive rather than the reactive," says Arrillaga-Andreessen. "But if we're to solve these problems, the onus is on givers to facilitate that change."