On April 7, local resident Jack Dorsey—the cofounder and CEO of publicly traded Twitter and Square, and a billionaire several times over—announced he was devoting more than a quarter of his fortune to COVID-19 relief.
Generosity like this—plus his hyper-success story and Silicon Valley aesthete mythos—is why Dorsey is “adored” by his employees, fellow celebrities, and the public at large, as Vanity Fair’s Nick Bilton wrote, but it’s also a critique. Among the flaws and contradictions in American society made glaring by the novel coronavirus pandemic is the enormous gap between what the public needs and what the government can provide, a deficit that’s forced elected officials across the country to go begging.
In San Francisco, that means hitting up tech magnates exactly like Jack Dorsey. On March 13, several days before public health experts froze the Bay Area economy in place, Mayor London Breed set up what she called the Give2SF COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund, and started asking for cash.
Marc Benioff’s Salesforce, Workday founder Aneel Bhusri, the Getty family, and the Hellman Foundation responded. All reached into their very deep pockets to plunk down more than $1 million each. Relatively tiny percentages of their worth, maybe, but cash that would help keep small businesses afloat, keep tenants in their homes now and in the future, and allow people living canceled paycheck to canceled paycheck to eat—and, the calculus goes, cash that might compel others, like Jack Dorsey, one of the reported 75 billionaires with a home address in San Francisco, which has the most billionaires of any city in the United States per capita, to also donate.
It hasn’t worked. As of late last week, the Give2SF Fund had received a total of $10.5 million in donations, according to Mayor Breed’s office, an order of magnitude less than the anticipated need. And Dorsey didn’t donate to the Give2SF Fund. As of Monday, according to a spreadsheet of donors provided to Curbed SF, he has yet to contribute a penny locally—to the Give2SF Fund, or anywhere else.
Dorsey isn’t unique among San Francisco’s nine-zeroes club. If there are 75 billionaires in San Francisco, close to 70 have yet to fork over a dime to COVID-19 relief. Dorsey’s local parsimony is the standard.
In an unprecedented time of unprecedented need, with unemployment projected to top 20 percent and housing displacement estimated to exceed the nadir of the Great Recession, the crop of billionaires created during the past decade in San Francisco—many of them, like Dorsey, the beneficiaries of generous tax breaks from the city—have chosen to hold onto their fortunes.
This has not gone unnoticed.
Billionaires “don’t seem to get rich by giving it away… but it would be very nice if they wanted to,” Supervisor Aaron Peskin told Curbed SF. “A few hundred million dollars would make a big difference in this town.”
What Dorsey did was move approximately 20 million shares of Square stock, worth more than $1.26 billion at current market value, into his charitable LLC. (A philanthropic technique popular in Silicon Valley, charitable LLCs escape reporting requirements and also allow money to be spent on lobbying—or investing for profit, as critics point out.)
That charitable LLC, called Start Small, has also not donated to San Francisco or to the Bay Area, according to a publicly available spreadsheet Dorsey posted on Twitter.
Of the total $8.2 million so far “dispersed,” Dorsey has sprinkled $2 million to domestic violence victims in Los Angeles, $1 million to Masks for the People, and around $1 million total to charities in New York City, New Orleans, and Puerto Rico—munificence that’s earned glowing praise in tweets from Andrew Yang, Alyssa Milano, and Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai, and very little critical examination.
Why Dorsey has chosen to spend his money this way is his business, and he is not sharing his reasoning. Dorsey did not respond to a Twitter DM seeking comment. Nor did a spokesperson for Square return an email seeking comment.
In his Twitter message, Dorsey hit all the right anodyne, made-for-the-Goop-newsletter notes.
“The needs are increasingly urgent, and I want to see the impact in my lifetime,” he wrote. “I hope this inspires others to do something similar.”
If in more normal times Dorsey does indeed walk the five miles from his Seacliff mansion to work in Mid-Market, a great way to see “impact” in his lifetime would be to open up his wallet so he could resume this commute.
A few hundred million dollars in donations would represent less than 1 percent of the fortune of 75 billionaires. This would be money that San Francisco would not have to cajole out of its feudal overlords if they were taxed.
The ability to dodge such taxes is something Jack Dorsey is more than happy to pay for.
In November 2018, by an nearly two-to-one margin, San Francisco voters passed Proposition C, intended to raise as much as $300 million to help the city’s homeless population (and, maybe, do something about the most grotesque and undeniable manifestation of the city’s grotesque and undeniable income gap) via a gross receipts tax of no more than 0.69 percent on companies with more than $50 million in annual income. A modest proposal, affecting a small minority of fabulously wealthy companies with wealth immense enough to count as a global force. Yet Proposition C triggered a miniature revolt among Silicon Valley honchos—and chief among them was Jack Dorsey.
He trashed the measure on Twitter and donated $125,000 to the Chamber of Commerce-led effort to defeat Proposition C, campaign finance records show. His company, Square, donated another $50,000—or, in sum, $175,000 more than Dorsey or Square have given to coronavirus relief in San Francisco.
Again, this is not to single Dorsey out for being venal. He has company. Other donors who ponied up to defeat Proposition C in an effort to avoid paying taxes and who haven’t seen fit to dish a dime to COVID-19 relief include Levi Strauss, the San Francisco Giants, Charles Schwab, Instacart, and the Chamber of Commerce itself. SF Forward, the chamber’s political action arm, donated $345,422 to the anti-Proposition C effort, campaign finance records show.
While some chamber members have donated to Give2SF, the organization is not listed as a major donor. Jay Cheng, a spokesman for the chamber, did not return an email seeking comment.
(There’s some irony here: Bank of America and Wells Fargo have together donated $350,000 to Breed’s Give2SF Fund—“chump change” for giant banks, as one elected official fumed, and money that could conceivably be better spent on rent or mortgage relief, to keep creditors like Wells Fargo or Bank of America from seizing a home once moratoriums are lifted. If either company wanted to help, they might offer relief at the inflection point of a mortgage, rather than buying lunch or a brief stay of eviction for someone who will still owe them.)
Later this week, the city will launch a very public Give2SF advertising campaign. In a way, it’s a shame campaign. Some 1,671 donors have given to the fund, according to the list provided by the city, with an average donation of $3,521— a high number skewed by the few million-dollar gives, floated by low- and middle-class earners. Those who have the least to give are giving the most, both as a percentage of their wealth and as a percentage of total charity.
“I’m really sad that, in one of the richest cities in the entire world, we’ve only been able to raise close to $11 million mostly from everyday and middle-income San Franciscans,” said Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who called the COVID-19 pandemic the city’s greatest crisis since the 1906 earthquake and fire. “We have 75 billionaires in our city… I really want to see them step up like other San Franciscans have stepped up.”
An example of just how profoundly a single munificent donor can affect pandemic life can be seen across the Golden Gate Bridge. Only 1,680 people live in Bolinas, the infamously prickly and reclusive West Marin town, but every single one of them can receive a free COVID-19 test. Bolinas residents Jyri Engestrom, a venture capitalist, and Cyrus Harmon, CEO of Olema Pharmaceuticals, came up with the idea, and it’s part of a UCSF research project, but it was local billionaire Mark Pincus, the founder of Zynga, who “anchored” the testing with a $100,000 donation, as the Point Reyes Light reported.
Through her press office, Mayor London Breed did not agree to be interviewed for this article. In a statement provided via email by mayoral spokesperson Sarah Owens, the mayor stressed the obvious: $10 million is nowhere near enough money, and everyone in the mayoral rolodex will be tapped for cash.
“We are grateful for all the donations we’ve received so far, but the demand for these programs far outweighs the resources we currently have available,” the mayor’s statement reads in part. “Over the coming days, weeks, and months, we’ll continue reaching out to the public, companies, and foundations about the need for additional financial contributions to support Give2SF programs.”
So far, Breed has received warm, if possibly misdirected, praise in the national press for her handling of the pandemic. She has also resisted the temptation to call out her city’s billionaire class for their reluctance (or refusal, if you like) to help out.
Last week, Robert Costa, a national political reporter for the Washington Post, asked Breed a version of the same question posed by Curbed SF. Invoking the tycoons, Costa asked, “Have they done enough, in your view, to be supportive of San Francisco?”
Breed declined the invitation to take a swipe. Instead, she praised both San Francisco-based Twilio and Salesforce for their work on efforts like “contact tracing applications,” the effective rollout of which—like viable, widespread testing of the kind available in Bolinas—will be necessary if Bay Area life is to resume anytime soon. At her most strident, Breed was pluralistic.
“There’s more, of course, that anyone can do,” she said, without naming names.
Breed did not name names because she didn’t have to, and because it would take too long. The list of misers is far longer than the list of patrons. Jack Dorsey is neither the most famous nor the richest of San Francisco’s billionaires. And neither is he the cheapest—a title for which there is stiff competition, a contest that continues even in the plague.