This year at the Crunchies: Class tensions and tech-charity

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on February 7, 2014

From The News Desk

This year at the Crunchies, which, as host John Oliver once noted, is all about "giving nerds the opportunity to do what nerds do best: sit back and judge each other,” there will be an interesting juxtaposition. In addition to a star-studded line up -- and by that I mean entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, tech media mavens, and others who populate the startup ecosystem --  there will be a session on philanthropy.

With some of the most powerful and wealthy people in Silicon Valley -- and the entire country -- in attendance, San Francisco mayor Edwin M. Lee and VC Ron Conway will take the stage to discuss socioeconomic relations in the Bay Area. Alongside will stand Theresa Preston-Werner, founder of new charity Omakase and wife of GitHub President Tom Preston-Werner. She'll introduce her charity, Omakase, and a new program called "Tech Cares," which is an effort to get the tech community to start giving. Meanwhile, outside the building, a group of activists will reportedly protest the gentrification of the city.

If that isn't a perfect symbolic scene for the collision of tech and social justice, I don't know what is. "Given the discord in San Francisco, it feels weird for all of us to be in City Hall, having this big awards show about these amazing companies and not acknowledging the connection to the rest of the city," Preston-Werner says.

The Crunchies session on philanthropy was her idea. With more than seven years experience volunteering and working in non-profits, Preston-Werner is stunned by how few techies donate to charity regularly. There are the big givers, of course, the Gates, Zuckerbergs, and Omidyars of the tech world. But the little people, many of the well-off developers and founders who haven't exited yet, are more stingy.

Of course, San Francisco is one of those places where a millionaire with a mortgage, car, and private school for the kids can feel cash-strapped. There are plenty of millionaires with mountains of debt. And a $50 million gift from a Gates or Omidyar would be like a $5,000 gift from one of Silicon Valley's rank-and-file.

Still, Preston-Werner is driven -- some might say consumed -- by one mission: to close that gap in giving.

She has all the ingredients necessary for igniting a philanthropic fervor in the startup community. Connections to the right people. A deep understanding of how non-profits work. Data on why people in tech do or don't give. Money to get the ball rolling. Perfect timing.

If she can't do it, who can?

Preston-Werner has a PhD in Cultural Anthropology, a degree she earned while volunteering for a few charities and then working full time as Director of Evaluations at Guatemalan-focused non-profit Women Work Together. She did all that while having a baby and supporting Tom in scaling GitHub.

"Our philosophy is you just gotta see how far you can push yourself until you break," Preston-Werner says. "And we haven't broken yet."

She eventually decided she wanted to run her own charity, one that would focus on transforming techies into givers. She believes if you get 25-year-olds to become educated and consistent donors, their giving will expand exponentially down the line. Particularly in a place like San Francisco, where it's not unusual for a 25-year-old to turn into a millionaire overnight.

Unfortunately, the young single twenty-something is historically the hardest charity nut to crack. Nevertheless, Preston-Werner likes the challenge. "It's not necessarily where the money is going right now. It's where it's coming from," Preston-Werner says.

That said, she added, "It may take a few tries to figure it out."

To get started, Preston-Werner collected information from 263 people who self-identified as being in tech by tweeting a survey to Tom's 23,000 followers. She wanted to find out how often they gave to philanthropy and the reasons why or why not.

"The number one thing that came back was that they didn't feel like charities were transparent enough," Preston-Werner says. "People were afraid of being scammed."

Thus came the idea for Omakase -- a subscription donation charity. Preston-Werner would vet different non-profits and choose five featured ones each quarter. "We don't fund programs built by well meaning white folks who visited somewhere on vacation once and decided to create a non-profit," Preston-Werner says. "That's not an organic sustainable organization."

Instead, she looks for a unique "wow" element -- a charity doing a job in the region that no one else is providing. For example, the charity for February is Medic Mobile, which helps healthcare volunteers in underserved populations distribute resources via text messages.

Then people -- in the tech community or elsewhere -- can sign up to pay $10 on a monthly basis, knowing that the money was going to a vetted organization. "I spent the entire summer reading 990 tax forms," Preston-Werner says. She was looking for smaller charities without big marketing budgets that were run like startups.

She had a whole range of requirements: Their executives couldn't make absurdly high salaries, they had to be transparent about their financials, they had to incorporate some type of innovative or technological business model. Most importantly, they had to have systems in place to measure whether they were meeting their goals and iterate if they weren't.

Sound familiar? Preston-Werner's connection to the tech world shined through her approach. She wanted those in Silicon Valley to get excited about the non-profits selected each month. She wanted giving to be fun and to feel like an investment in something innovative, not a chore.

At the same time, having worked in non-profits for years Preston-Werner says she understood the ins and outs in a way someone from the tech world wouldn't. "I know non-profits," Preston-Werner says. "I know what questions to ask, what their pain points are, where they're bullshitting."

With the right idea behind her, she built initial prototypes "funded by the Preston-Werner family" and then raised a seed investment from prolific angel investor Ron Conway. She recruited her husband's former business partner -- Rob Cameron -- to serve as her CTO.

The timing couldn't be better. With tensions between the haves and the have-nots in San Francisco tightening, Preston-Werner is in a position to bridge that gap, although in a small way since the protesters who mass outside the Crunchies will not be interested in charity. They want affordable housing.

Getting nouveau riche engineers to tithe some money to charity is a nice gesture and may do some good, but it probably won't impress protesters and certainly won't make a dent in escalating rents and property values.