The Robin Hood of the Bay
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Even as the tech boom creates unprecedented wealth, more than a million Bay Area residents live in poverty. Can philanthropy fix it?
Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.
The booming Bay cleaves between haves and have-nots, techno-capitalists and minimum-wage workers, gentrifiers and the priced out, riches and rags. Few have as good a vantage on this drama as Daniel Lurie. The 37-year-old is the founder and CEO of Tipping Point Community, an anti-poverty organization that is the darling of the Silicon Valley elite.
Lurie is the Bay Area’s philanthropist whisperer. He is not a revolutionary, and Tipping Point is explicitly not political. He likely would disappoint those who want to change the system. But in a world like this one, where the term “economic inequality” is a call to arms even as economic disparities widen, Lurie’s Tipping Point is quietly, effectively, helping those the boom has not.
We’re beginning to see a group of leaders starting to give back at younger ages than ever before.
– Daniel Lurie
Last year, it funneled almost $14 million to job-training programs, health care facilities, shelters, housing and education for the underserved. Its lucre comes from old-wealth San Franciscans as well as the Valley’s newly moneyed technorati and financiers. Seats on Tipping Point’s board come with an ask of a quarter-million dollars. They are coveted.
Lurie comes from wealth but comes off as self-made: It’s not hard to imagine him connecting with all sorts. He’s got a direct gaze and a quiet, intense manner that’s occasionally cut by a dry joke or crinkly grin. He speaks with passion about poverty, accountability, and the fortitude and smarts of Tipping Point’s grantees.
“We ask these nonprofits to do incredibly difficult work,” says Lurie. “I believe it’s the most challenging work going on in this nation, whether it be teaching, or helping to find a single mother and her two kids permanent housing, or one of our doctors working in East Palo Alto.”
Lurie disagrees with those who grouse that the Bay Area elite are blithe and self-involved. Such grousing would be counterproductive anyway. “You can read every story you want about [how] there’s not enough being done and people should be doing more,” Lurie says. But he senses something different. “We’re beginning to see a group of leaders starting to give back at younger ages than ever before,” he says. “And I think in the next five to 10 years, we’re going to see a sea change in what this community is doing.”
The number of people in the Bay Area who are too poor to meet their basic needs: 1.3 million, a whopping one in five.
That might be overly optimistic — again, grousing is counterproductive in Lurie’s line of work — but Tipping Point’s roster of donors provides some evidence of the claim. Present and past supporters include Marissa Mayer (Yahoo), Sergey Brin (Google), Ron Conway (SV Angel) and Hosain Rahman (Jawbone).* Tipping Point recently partnered with Salesforce founder Marc Benioff — himself a leading tech philanthropist — in SF Gives, a push to raise $500,000 each from 20 tech entrepreneurs by early May.
Benioff told the San Francisco Chronicle: “We don’t want to be the industry that looks like The Wolf of Wall Street. We want to be more benevolent.”
Key to Tipping Point’s appeal to benevolent titans is this: It is avowedly practical, not political. Its board includes former union organizers as well as Republican voters. The programs it supports are geared toward direct services, not anything overtly ideological.
Lurie prefers to cast inequality as an ’opportunity divide.’
“We don’t do advocacy, we don’t do politics. We find groups that provide opportunity to those that are willing to work hard to lift themselves out of poverty, and I think that’s attracted people from across the political spectrum,” he says.
As for economic inequality, Lurie says it’s a serious issue, and that “the business community needs to take responsibility for what’s happening in their city and their region.” In conversation, he repeatedly invokes the number of people in the Bay Area who are too poor to meet their basic needs: 1.3 million, a whopping one in five.
But, perhaps wary of the term’s politicization, Lurie prefers to cast inequality as an “opportunity divide.” He says, “If you’re a kid growing up in some of our neighborhoods, your shot of even graduating high school is very low, just because of the zip code you were born into.” The answer, he says, is better education, job opportunities and health care.
Another donor-friendly aspect of Tipping Point’s approach is its emphasis on measuring results. Big donors no longer feel comfortable just writing a check and walking away, Lurie says. Some want more direct involvement, but nearly all want to feel their money is used well. “They want a return on their investment, and Tipping Point does too.” To that end, Tipping Point says it doesn’t hesitate to stop funding groups that don’t perform.
Tipping Point’s focus on poverty represents a shift from the institution-based philanthropy of Lurie’s forebears.
Measuring the return on social investment can be tricky, though — it’s the holy grail of good works these days. One of Tipping Point’s methods is to measure the five-year impact of programs on earnings. Another is simply to hash out goals with grantees at the beginning of the year and assess at the end.
Lurie comes from a long line of progressive philanthropists. His father, Brian, is a prominent rabbi who headed the Jewish Community Federation for many years; he’s now in charge of the progressive New Israel Foundation. Philanthropy is in his jeans, too: Lurie’s stepfather was Peter Haas, who made the family business, Levi-Strauss, a household name. The foundation established by Haas and Lurie’s mother, Mimi, gave away millions to support early childhood development, while the philanthropy of the the larger Haas clan has shaped the Bay Area, from UC-Berkeley’s business school to Crissy Field and other green spaces, to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
But for Lurie, Tipping Point’s focus on poverty represents a shift from the institution-based philanthropy of his forebears’ generations. Poverty, he says, “doesn’t have natural allies, and it is also not necessarily a building. You can’t see a name on it.”
He came to anti-poverty work not long after college at Duke and a stint working on Bill Bradley’s 2000 presidential campaign. In New York in the early 2000s, Lurie worked for the Robin Hood Foundation, the charity founded by hedge funder Paul Tudor Jones. As the name implies, Robin Hood uses donations from the rich — financiers, mostly — to fund programs for the poor. Lurie found its model an inspiration. “I realized we didn’t have that sort of institution here, in the San Francisco Bay Area, and I wanted that for my home region,” he says.
So he headed home, along with his now-wife, Becca Prowda, whom he met at Robin Hood. (Lurie declined to confirm whether their 2006 wedding ceremony included a bongo interlude by Gavin Newsom, who was mayor at the time.) He studied public policy at Berkeley and assembled the team that would start Tipping Point in 2005: NFL Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott; Katie Schwab Paige of the Schwab Family Foundation; and Chris James, a Robin Hood donor.
Since then, Tipping Point has raised upward of $60 million for its grantees, whose work has helped some 250,000 Bay Area residents. (As with Robin Hood, Tipping Point’s operating expenses are funded by its board, so that all donations go straight to program support.) Lurie has become a father of two and a prominent civic figure. Last year, he headed up San Francisco’s successful bid to host Super Bowl 2016 in the 49ers’ new Levi-Strauss stadium, in Santa Clara. The stadium is scheduled to open this summer.
No doubt Lurie has a Midas touch. Also: affability, civic passion, friends in places high, low and in between. His blend of confidence and humility is very appealing in a nonpartisan way.
There’s one sure way to trip him up, though: Ask him about the titters that that he should be mayor. Then may ensue an unusual 15-second bout of silence as Lurie looks down at his lap. When he looks up again, a slight flush might linger on his face. “You should talk to my wife about that. You’ll get a pretty definitive answer,” he says.
And then, more seriously if only slightly less opaquely: “I’m not going anywhere. I love my job.”
*Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified one of Tipping Point’s supporters.