Deploying Ill-Gotten Loot to Maximize Impact in the Global South
Building towards a future of climate-resilient people and ecosystems.
HOW IT STARTED
Disaster response work, flying under the radar.
HOW IT’S GOING
Trusting partners and deploying the full capital spectrum. Strategically public and transparent to influence and encourage others. Comfort with risk and failure. Finding and amplifying unsung heroes.
Background and Evolution
When I was 10, I played around with a dying hobby called ham radio. Part of its ethos is being a communications platform for when everything else breaks down, so there’s a disaster response element to it. I did disaster response work informally for years, then worked on my passions in Silicon Valley and made what was to me ungodly amounts of money. It stopped being plucky fun so I retired and went to art school. After futzing around there, I said, “Oh, crap, my hair is getting gray now, and I haven’t been doing anything useful with my ill-gotten loot. What do I want to do?”
It was time to pay back some of my debt to society. I considered disaster response, but it’s a losing game—instead we get better impact by making the world more resilient. In thinking about what’s the biggest disaster on the horizon, climate change was obvious.
Most of the climate change money is going into climate change mitigation, as it rightfully should be. Anything we can do to stop the disaster is better. But at least when I started out, no one was talking about climate change adaptation or resilience. I saw a clear funding and project gap in this area, and decided to focus on climate smart food and water security in the Global South.
I went in with the assumption that I’m going to get things wrong, so let’s learn as much as we can from people, just start making investments and see which ones work and which ones don’t.
What has been your personal experience with TPW?
There were three big value-adds for me. TPW at the very beginning helped me think about getting serious about philanthropy and what would actually be emotionally fulfilling. At my first TPW Summit, I was talking with a fellow member and saying how this is really important but I didn’t know if I had it in me. She basically slapped me across the face and told me, “If you don’t find something that brings you joy and makes you passionate, then you should stop now because you’re going to burn out and hate it in a year.” I was on that track of burning out. So between the trainings and discussions with other funders, I found new passion. The other thing that TPW brought was a network of like-minded people to learn from—everyone has their hopes, worries, concerns, and solutions while going through their own evolution as effective funders. The third thing is network access to other funders for mindshare, not only to support their work, but for learning what would be effective in supporting my work. This may sound like “poor little rich boy,” but sometimes it can be lonely when you are a first-generation funder with strong middle class values and upbringing. I didn’t grow up with wealth and learned how to steward it in a commercial environment. But I didn’t know how to be a responsible person when it came to philanthropic funding, so that support is nice.
What have been important takeaways for you from being involved with TPW?
TPW gets you to think strategically about what you want to do with your “loot,” whether it was ill-gotten or not. It’s about strategizing the impact you want to create, and thinking about what’s going to make you happy. I know plenty of people who give away millions to universities or whatever, and they get their name up on a building and it doesn’t make them any happier.
Although I’m a fairly private person who spent a lot of effort making sure I did not show up anywhere on the web for 35 years, I now, unfortunately, also recognize the power of using my name and my experience to generate more impact than I otherwise could on my own.
How has your strategic thinking evolved since 2019?
I have more desire to make mistakes and learn from them and not be so hung up on getting it right the first time. I don’t think that you can learn how to do funding well without actively engaging, and if you’re going to engage with someone, you need to make it worthwhile. The best way to test how someone’s going to do with a crap-ton of money is to give them some money. The network, not only other TPW funders but also the people and organizations that we’ve invested in, have greatly enhanced our intelligence and ability to hopefully effect positive change. We did the +1 Fund as an exercise in trust-based giving, or what others would call pipeline expansion, or others still would say democratizing philanthropy. It’s all of those. The idea is to find the hidden unsung heroes, ones who aren’t the dynamic speakers at funding pitches and develop their capacity and expose them to the rest of the world. No initiative works in a vacuum; there is always an ecosystem around it, so it’s about how best to support that ecosystem.
What keeps you up at night about philanthropy?
At some point I recognized that my personal wealth was invested at odds with my impact goals. I started screening toxic companies out of my investments, and then got involved in shareholder advocacy and investing in larger companies that are prescriptively good for climate and good for society. One of my big annoyances is with people in the philanthropy sector who dedicate X dollars for their impact efforts, while their philanthropic and personal portfolios are 100x and invested in organizations that are anathema to their impact goals.
A triple-win example of a great organization we support in the clean power space is Navajo Power, which is converting large swaths of the coal industry in the Navajo nation into clean energy. It’s a just transition with clean jobs that are part of the reservation. On the shareholder advocacy side, I brought in different proxy managers to be available at Goldman Sachs, which may have in the end resulted in the biggest win I ever had—just in terms of overall impact where their shareholder proxy managers take not only ESG but true sustainability into account.
Why focus internationally?
For me, it was around the efficiency of the dollar. I can support a project in the Global South for a tenth or even a hundredth of the cost of doing a project in the US. Typically, the people in the south are going to be the ones who get screwed the first and the worst. Folks in the south are still largely not participating in reaping the windfalls of the global economy that has caused this problem in the first place. So it’s efficiency as well as justice.
From a strict utilitarian standpoint, I would want to look for the greatest good. Most of the people who live in exploited or colonized lands didn’t participate in the situation that got them there in the first place. It comes back to the power of money, where $1 can positively affect X number of lives in one location versus another. It’s overall impact mixed with a sense of reparative justice, with the ugly side of having to triage.
What’s your perspective on impact investing?
I talk to people primarily engaged in philanthropic funding who simply say, “Oh, impact investing is hard.” And then I talk to investing professionals and they think philanthropy is weak and soft. Philanthropists can’t even call a business plan a business plan, it has to be a “logic model” or “theory of change.” The thing is, the impact is the same, even if the skills are adjacent. A lot of TPW members seem to not want to do impact investing, but I think that’s a mistake because the outcome should drive the capital. If you are only a philanthropic funder, then you don’t provide capital that might actually be far more impactful, and raise far more money towards the result you’re trying to create—for example, compared with choosing an alternate form of capital, whether it was debt or equity or something else. It’s a spectrum. If you’re only looking at one side or the other, you’re doing your goal a disservice.
What does trust in philanthropy mean to you?
You treat a partner organization like a partner. You decide whether your directions allow you to be fellow travelers. If so, you consult, learn what their needs are, decide whether to support those needs, and support them to meet their goals but get the hell out of the way of their decision process. To me, that’s trust-based philanthropy. At the end of the year, I ask, did you meet the goals you set for yourself? If not, where are there good reasons for not meeting those goals? That’s it. We load our due diligence up front.
I also believe philanthropy is about multi-year relationships. We start off with get-to-know-you grants because we feel that how a small working relationship pans out is indicative of a larger, long-term relationship. We try to take on the burden of the philanthropic pipeline instead of throwing it on our operating partners, because they exist to create impact. We exist to foster that impact.