Silicon Valley donors open wallets in response to COVID-19
An aerial view of downtown San Jose. Image by Janice Bitters

The ultra-rich are a dime a dozen in Silicon Valley.

A recent tally counted 76,000 millionaires and billionaires living here, and nearly a third of adults are considered “upper income,” according to recent data from the Pew Research Center.

Although many of those are generous to charity, it has been difficult to channel that largesse into local nonprofits doing necessary social service work governments and free markets don’t do. But the coronavirus pandemic has magnified the visible effects of the social inequity that was already prevalent in the South Bay — and that has more donors opening up their wallets.

Catherine Crystal Foster is CEO of Magnify Community, a Los Altos nonprofit that connects local donors and charitable foundations to Silicon Valley community service organizations.

Before COVID-19 wreaked havoc on the lives of the South Bay’s most vulnerable residents, Foster told San José Spotlight less than 10 percent of charitable giving from Silicon Valley donors and foundations was going to local organizations that provide services here.

Which is why Magnify Community launched an effort last year to get $100 million in new giving from local donors to local charities by 2023.

Foster said a major obstacle has been Silicon Valley philanthropists being oblivious to problems in their own backyard and an ignorance of local organizations working to counteract the devastating effects of food insecurity, homelessness and racial inequality in the South Bay.

“People didn’t know the extent of the social problems in their midst,” Foster said.

“It sounds cliché but people want to do the right thing. And as we’ve lifted up the stories of hardship in the community and as we’ve lifted up the stories of the leaders of the community serving nonprofits who are facing those problems every day — donors have really stepped up.”

That groundswell of donations continued after the lives of many already vulnerable people were upended by coronavirus, Foster said. Donors are giving more money to more local charities, more often and with fewer strings attached, she added, calling the outpouring of generosity unprecedented.

“Since COVID we have been incredibly impressed and inspired by the degree to which local donors have stepped up,” Foster said.

Indeed, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation reports it has distributed more than $194 million in coronavirus-related aid since the pandemic began — including more than $30 million in the nine-county Bay Area.

In the immediate aftermath of COVID-19 the community foundation established three major funds to provide relief to those suffering in our region and has given $17.3 million to low-income individuals and families, $9.9 million to local nonprofits and $3.4 million to owners and employees of small businesses as of Aug. 2.

As of July 7, the community foundation had also granted more than $1.3 million to Bay Area school districts and nearly half-a-million dollars to local childcare providers for coronavirus relief.

Since 2007, the SVCF has awarded more than $6 billion in grants — roughly half of which has gone to support service organizations in the Bay Area. But Alex Tenorio, executive vice president for development and donor engagement, told San José Spotlight his organization is working to “refocus donors” on local needs.

Coronavirus is different — in size and scope — from other tragedies that inspire donors to give generously, he said. As an example, Tenorio cited the mass shooting in Gilroy last summer — a single event immediately caused a massive outpouring of support for the victims’ families. When those needs were met, the philanthropic community moved on.

“This is an ongoing crisis and we don’t know how long it will persist,” Tenorio said. “And it’s multiple crises in one — a public health crisis, a financial crisis, an education and childcare crisis — and there are the problems of social justice and racial inequity that already existed and have been made worse by COVID.”

Before coronavirus, more than two-thirds of low-income households in Silicon Valley were paying more than half of their monthly income on rent and more than a quarter million Bay Area residents were one missed paycheck away from becoming homeless, Tenorio said.

Now, in Santa Clara County alone, more than 43,000 households are facing eviction when state and local moratoriums expire. And the COVID-19 death rate is significantly higher in the county’s Black and Latinx communities than it is among other racial groups.

“These problems have been brewing for some time, they are coming home to roost now and we need to solve the immediate impacts of that and think long term about dealing with extreme wealth inequality,” Tenorio said.

“It can seem daunting, but for all our challenges we have an amazing network of people who care. I think we can come through this — not by just putting a Band-Aid on these problems — by working together to solve the structural issues that have been growing for so long that led to these problems being so challenging in the moment.”

Contact Adam F. Hutton at [email protected] or follow @adamfhutton on Twitter.

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