Dany: I’m not going to stop the wheel. I’m going to break the wheel.—Game of Thrones, Season 5, Episode 8

In his characteristically splashy way, Sean Parker made headlines recently by coining a new phrase: “philanthropy for hackers.” His Wall Street Journal op-ed (which also marked the unveiling of his new private foundation) outlines some basic ways that “hacker philanthropy” is a departure from the past. To paraphrase the author:

  • Hacker philanthropists want solvable problems.

  • Hacker philanthropists want measurable impact.

  • Hacker philanthropists are anti-establishment.

  • ... You get the idea.

Now that Parker has made his billions and entered the hallowed ranks of American philanthropists, he wants to stir things up in this new, more generous chapter. To be clear: Parker doesn’t want to end philanthropy, he wants to disrupt it. John Paulsons of the philanthropy world, take note.

I have a spoiler alert for Parker: Hacker philanthropy has a nice ring to it, but this isn’t an entirely new idea. Those familiar with the mid-20th century Rockefeller investments that led to the Green Revolution (and saved billions of lives) might agree that 21st-century Silicon Valley social media “barons” aren’t the only ones who see value in swinging for the social impact fences. 

But regardless of how truly groundbreaking his idea is, it’s not a bad one. Parker’s piece rings most true when he decries what he sees as risk aversion, incremental-ism and opacity on the part of many private foundations. For all the 86,000-plus foundations that exist today, only a small fraction employ an outcomes-based approach or try to intentionally design grantmaking programs that we could call remotely strategic. There are many examples of foundations for which an interest in self-perpetuity seems to be dangerously close to eclipsing the moral imperative of their social missions. All to say: Hacker philanthropy is a welcome re-examination of the current state of philanthropy.

While he is busy disrupting, here are some principles that might serve House Parker well:

  • Please don’t reinvent the wheel before you break it. Responsible philanthropists are eager to learn. Before you seek to disrupt the system, try to understand the failures and the successes (yes, there were a few) of your forebears. It will help you save time and win friends, and might actually help you be more effective to boot. It is fine to be anti-establishment, but if you enter political waters, as Parker encourages hacker philanthropists to do, keep in mind that the establishment is occasionally what gets things get done.

  • Effective philanthropy will always be an art, as well as a science. The furor over effective altruism is a case in point. There are cases where data can point you wrong—think vanity metrics. Evidence is only as “good” as the people gathering it, interpreting it, and sharing the lessons they’ve learned with the world. By the same token, passion and drive are human characteristics that serve philanthropists just as they do business entrepreneurs. Parker’s “solvable” problem, cancer immunotherapy, stems in part from his own family’s experience. Enter, the art.

  • Humility. And collaboration. And ... humility. This one doesn’t need an explainer, yet I feel compelled to include it here after reading Parker’s article. Parker writes, “How do these individuals, accustomed to unleashing massive social changes that span the globe, make a lasting contribution in their charitable lives and find satisfaction in doing so?” Achieving human impact “at scale” is different from cooking up a commercially brilliant idea in a garage over many years. Both may take a long time or not happen at all, but that may be where the similarities end. The real game-changing philanthropic leaders combine vision with humility, an appreciation that they may not have all the answers, and the smarts to bring in partners when it makes sense—even if that means they have to share the impact sandbox.

As a side note, it’s interesting that Parker thinks that curing cancer is a solvable problem, while global warming is not. (“I care deeply, for example, about the plight of refugees and the peril of global warming, but I don’t pretend to have some special insight into how to deal with them,” he says.) It’s OK for Parker to choose his areas of focus, of course. But if he put his formidable mind and monies toward leveraging the insights of others, global warming might not be out of range. Perhaps when he’s achieved his objectives with cancer immunotherapy—and I sincerely hope he succeeds—Parker should take a look at new developments in nuclear fusion. Saving the world, not just solving a hackable problem? That’s what I’d call really swinging for the fences. 

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