Giving Away Silicon Valley’s Billions

Photo: Patrick Tehan

Nicole Taylor stands at her second-floor office window looking at the tan and white Tioga camper parked on a side street below. Two adult bikes hang on a rack attached to the rear of the vehicle; the children’s bikes are piled on the roof. Each weekday morning a young woman dressed neatly in a skirt and heels steps out and waves goodbye. The camper doesn’t leave. A family lives inside. 

“That motivates me,” Taylor says, gesturing to the camper below. “We have to do better than that.”

The view—a family living in a vehicle right outside one of the richest foundations in the world—illustrates the wealth gap that has made Silicon Valley a national focal point for the contrast between the haves and have-nots. It’s also why housing is one of the priorities of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF), where Taylor, ’90, MA ’91, took the helm in November 2018. 

SVCF has come under fire in recent years. It grew by 507 percent in the decade spanning 2008 to 2018, making it the ninth-largest foundation (and largest community foundation) in the United States, with $8.9 billion in assets. At the same time, criticisms mounted: that the foundation had allowed billionaire donors to benefit from tax breaks by parking their funds without making many disbursements; that it enabled donors to pursue international philanthropic interests while failing to adequately serve its own community; that it created an intimidation-fueled workplace. 

Scathing articles referred to the “meltdown” or “implosion” at SVCF, turning it into a national news story. The CEO and the top fund-raiser resigned. Nearly one-third of the staff departed. The board named an interim leader, shifting its sights from fund-raising and asset building to survival mode and a global search for a new leader.

SVCF’s history in some ways mirrors that of Silicon Valley. Both amassed vast wealth over the past decade, but along the way left many behind and opened themselves to social critique.

Community foundations don’t usually attract this much attention as they quietly raise money from individuals, families and businesses to make grants that improve the lives of people in their own regions. In contrast to private foundations, which are established by one or a handful of sources and must pay out 5 percent of their assets each year, community foundations are public charities under IRS rules, and do not have the same payout requirements. Typically, they serve an important role in pooling gifts from many sources, then organizing their distribution to local programs. According to the Council on Foundations, there are more than 750 community foundations in the United States. 

SVCF’s history in some ways mirrors that of Silicon Valley. Both amassed vast wealth over the past decade, but along the way left many behind and opened themselves to social critique. As SVCF’s new president and CEO, Taylor is tasked with returning more of the foundation’s focus to the acute problems of its own neighborhoods, including out-of-control housing costs, lack of public transportation, a widening economic divide and rising homelessness. 

Taylor acknowledges the big task in front of her. For now, she says, her motto is, “I want to put the ‘community’ back in community foundation.”

Making People Count

On a September morning nine months into the job, Taylor sits behind her desk sipping tea from a black Stanford mug. Having spent her early months as CEO revitalizing a demoralized staff, filling vacant positions, and learning the internal and public workings of the foundation, she is anxious to get moving, particularly in the housing sector.

“I’m trying not to be in knots, but I feel a sense of urgency more now than when I came in,” she says. “This is a big organization and an institution in the community so you can’t just change overnight. There are a lot of moving pieces, but I see where we can be that resource and I’m like, ‘Let’s get to this!’ ”

Taylor’s “listening tour” took her from visiting a safe-parking lot for RV dwellers at an East Palo Alto church to facilitating a discussion with the governor and 16 business leaders on how to most effectively address the housing crisis in the Bay Area. Along the way she has continually posed two questions: “What do you want us to be? What does this region need in its community foundation?’ ” 

For the past decade, SVCF has focused on transportation, housing, civic participation, immigration and education. While these priorities remain, they may shift in the near future as Taylor and her colleagues and advisers finish the foundation’s new strategic plan.

‘Community foundations are complicated organizations. My role is to help connect the resources with the needs. And to understand we are all completely interdependent.’

“Our philosophical priorities won’t change,” she says. “What we actually land on as to where we put our resources and where we put our money—that is still in sausage-making mode.

“Community foundations are complicated organizations,” she adds. “My role is to help connect the resources with the needs. And to understand we are all completely interdependent.”

One of Taylor’s early actions has been to support local efforts to ensure a complete and accurate count in Census 2020, the national survey that she considers an urgent priority because it will directly affect how much federal money is allocated to California counties, which in turn pay for schools, hospitals, roads, public works and public safety. The census count also determines the number of seats each state holds in the U.S. House of Representatives.

In partnership with the Bay Area Census Funders Collaborative, SVCF has so far provided $3.3 million in grants to more than 130 nonprofits throughout the region. The goal is to use trusted grassroots leaders and community centers to reach hard-to-count populations. At Puente, a community resource center in southern San Mateo County, a grant of $50,000 has helped identify “invisible” residents who are often overlooked because of their immigration status or housing situation. For example, those who reside in garages, in-law units or vehicles may not have mailboxes, so they may not even receive an invitation to complete the census. Puente is contributing to an accurate map of housing units that will include those residents.

Puente’s efforts may even ripple beyond 2020. “The census grant means we are able to train Spanish-speaking women to go out and canvass their own neighborhoods,” says Mayra Pelagio, one of the organizers. “Once the census is over, we will have developed leaders who are willing and able to advocate for their community.” 

 Other local organizations are tailoring their programs to support different constituencies. Pars Equality Center, a San Jose resource center for Middle Eastern immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers, used its $20,000 grant to show those taking citizenship classes how to participate in the census and why it is important. Self-Help for the Elderly used its $15,000 grant to open four questionnaire assistance centers for seniors in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Alameda counties, offering public computers and tablets along with staff who can help. 

“I think about my mother,” says Taylor. “She knows how to read the news on her phone but not how to text, let alone fill out a survey. How many other people are in that boat?” 

Bridging the Divide

In 1963, at the age of 21, Taylor’s mom, Ionie Pablico, immigrated to the United States from her native Jamaica with the wealthy family she served as an unpaid live-in housekeeper. Taylor, who was born six years later, grew up in Southern California sharing a bedroom with her mom, and later with one of the five children her mother helped care for. She learned from an early age how to straddle the divide between privilege and poverty. “I knew how it felt to be on the outside,” she says. “I grew up in a big family, but I knew I wasn’t really part of the family.”

Every day on her way to school, Taylor’s mother would tell her that she had to “do her best, be the best and make something of herself.” There was little focus on the challenges of being a first-generation American or of having a mother who had completed the equivalent of sixth grade. Instead, her mom was fond of telling her to speak up when she disagreed or when she had an idea to share. Taylor attended Immaculate Heart High School, an all-girls’ school in Los Angeles, which she says cemented her identity as 
“a fierce, independent woman of color.” She was also an academic standout, and was admitted to Stanford with full financial aid.

“When I got here and I raised my hand,” she says, “if I wasn’t called on, I knew how to raise my voice.”

After completing her bachelor’s in human biology, Taylor earned a master’s and a teaching credential in the Graduate School of Education’s STEP program. Her first job, at Lowell Middle School in Oakland, plunged her into an environment where students often showed up hungry.  So many of them had asthma that Taylor began integrating public-health topics into her lesson plans, engaging her class in discussions about their neighborhood’s water treatment plant and the air-quality hazard of living near the freeway. 

Her first job, at Lowell Middle School in Oakland, plunged her into an environment where students often showed up hungry.  So many of them had asthma that Taylor began integrating public-health topics into her lesson plans.

“I went into teaching because education is the thing that really helped get me and my mother out of poverty,” says Taylor, who taught seventh- and eighth-grade science in the Oakland Unified School District. But as she saw the impact of community problems on her students, she began longing to do something that would improve the lives of more people. She moved to a job at College Track, a San Francisco nonprofit focused on getting low-income and first-generation students to college. From there she returned to her alma mater, first as the managing director at Stanford’s Haas Center for Public Service and later as associate vice provost and dean of community engagement and diversity. In between stints at Stanford, Taylor served as the president and CEO of the East Bay Community Foundation (EBCF) for nearly six years, from 2007 to 2013. 

At EBCF, Taylor partnered with Oakland Unified’s then-superintendent, Tony Smith, to raise nearly $7 million for the African American Male Achievement Initiative, designed to keep teen boys in high school. The district credited the program with increasing graduation rates by 10 percent among black male students.

In 2017, Taylor picked up stakes and moved to Arizona State University to become deputy vice president and dean of students. From there, she was named vice president at ASU’s Foundation for a New American University, integrating her expertise in education and philanthropy. 

Aside from her son, Evan, then a high schooler, and her mother, both of whom made the move with her, Taylor knew all of two people in the state. So she called one of them—Steve Seleznow, president and CEO of the Arizona Community Foundation—and asked him to meet for coffee. A month later, over dinner, she realized they had begun dating. Taylor put away her Bay Area–chic wardrobe (“No one wears black when it’s 110!”), took up daily walking and settled into a comfortable routine in the Southwest.

Then came the call from a recruiter about the job at Silicon Valley Community Foundation.


A Shaky Foundation

Taylor wasn’t at all sure about leaving ASU to take on a troubled Bay Area organization that the local nonprofit community was referring to as “the black hole” and “the Death Star.” But Silicon Valley Community Foundation’s board of directors had no doubts that she was the one. 

“When she walked into the room, it was evident within minutes that she brought what we needed,” says board chair Dan’l Lewin, CEO of the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. “We started with a pool of about 200, but when we met Nicole it was clear she wasn’t selling herself. She was herself. She just brings a level of listening and empathy to the problems we face that we hadn’t seen with anyone else. It is her life’s work.” 

SVCF formed in 2007 from the merger of the Peninsula Community Foundation in San Mateo and the Community Foundation Silicon Valley in San Jose. Its assets have ballooned in the past 10 years, primarily because it has become a popular receptacle for donor-advised funds (DAFs), individual accounts that can be sponsored and housed in a community foundation. A 2018 Forbes article named 17 billionaires who had established DAFs at Silicon Valley Community Foundation. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his physician wife, Priscilla Chan, donated $214 million in Facebook stock on the same day the foundation announced Taylor’s hiring. (The median DAF at the foundation is $86,000, and the minimum is $5,000.)

‘There’s a real opportunity for the foundation to reconnect itself to the grand and gloried history of community foundations in the United States in the form of a community trust that’s collectively governed. And from what I know about Nicole, who is a brilliant and inclusive leader, I’m not skeptical; I’m hopeful.’

DAFs are controversial because they provide the donors with generous tax breaks in the year of donation but can legally sit untouched for years without disbursing grants. California AB 1712, slated for upcoming review, would improve transparency into how the funds are being spent and increase accountability through annual reporting. For now, though, the details of individual DAFs are not public.  

Under Taylor’s predecessor, DAFs became 86 percent of the foundation’s assets. Moreover, in 2018, SVCF awarded 91 percent of its grants beyond San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. Although that still left $126 million to be donated within the two counties, it raised questions about why a community foundation wasn’t doing a better job of focusing on its own community. Taylor is working to change that.

“The goal is to give to areas about which donors are passionate and to give to the community from which their wealth was made,” she says. “That has been our goal since the beginning. We do not want to hoard assets. That isn’t our story.” 

SVCF staff now meet regularly with DAF holders to advise them on how to tailor grantmaking to their local interests. And a new dormant-fund policy ensures that funds do not remain inactive for more than 24 months. If there is no payout in that period of time, the money will be transferred into the Community Endowment Fund, operated by the foundation.

“There’s a real opportunity for the foundation to reconnect itself to the grand and gloried history of community foundations in the United States in the form of a community trust that’s collectively governed,” says Rob Reich, MA ’98, PhD ’98, a Stanford professor of political science who recently wrote a book critiquing modern philanthropy (see sidebar, page 43). “And from what I know about Nicole, who is a brilliant and inclusive leader, I’m not skeptical; I’m hopeful.”

Jim Steyer, ’78, JD ’83, who has known Taylor since she was a 19-year-old in his Stanford course on civil rights, civil liberties and poverty, concurs. “Even as a freshman, she wanted to change the world and make it a better, more equitable place,” says Steyer, CEO of Common Sense Media and an adjunct professor in comparative studies in race and ethnicity. “Now she has a huge responsibility to right the ship. She is a healer, and that is what the foundation needed.” 

Impact, Impact, Impact

Taylor readily acknowledges that she heads a foundation with enormous assets and, therefore, enormous potential. “But that alone won’t do it,” she says. “I don’t want to talk about our assets. I want to talk about our impact.”

Impact is not only Taylor’s watchword. It’s also the term her colleagues most often use when they talk about her work. 

Take Janet Spears, former COO at the East Bay Community Foundation, who is now CEO of the San Francisco nonprofit Metta Fund: “Nicole is able to go across the vast different areas of a community foundation and cover the breadth of what has to be done. She also knows she is just one person, so she finds the best partners. One of her greatest abilities is to move donors from thinking simply about charity to what will be the impact.”

Or Jackie Schmidt-Posner, EdS ’86, PhD ’89, who worked with Taylor at the Haas Center: “Nicole is one of those rare people who is the same whether she is talking to the undocumented worker or the janitor or a Mimi Haas [president of the Miriam and Peter Haas Fund]. She wants to have impact, and that thread runs through everything she has done.”

Taylor credits her mom, who has moved and lived with her for the past 20 years, for enabling her to have her career and raise Evan, now 20, as a single parent. When Taylor arrives at her house in Menlo Park, a warm plate of home-cooked food covered with foil awaits. 

Having impact, however, has an impact on Taylor’s personal life. She devotes her days and evenings to “SVCF 2.0,” as she calls it, typically not winding down on the couch with her labradoodle, Louis (as in Armstrong), until about 10 p.m. She and Seleznow eloped in July, but he remains in Phoenix as CEO of the Arizona Community Foundation. They talk every morning and night—“we ‘get’ each other and our days,” Taylor says—and visit each other regularly.

Taylor credits her mom, who has moved and lived with her for the past 20 years, for enabling her to have her career and raise Evan, now 20, as a single parent. When Taylor arrives at her house in Menlo Park, a warm plate of home-cooked food covered with foil awaits.

If friends question why she still lives with her mother, Taylor tells them, “You want to live with my mother! She makes my life possible.”

The Power of an iPad

In a brightly lit SVCF conference room last September, Taylor steps to the podium to introduce San Jose mayor Sam Liccardo and the city’s new Digital Inclusion Program. Smiling broadly at 
the audience of middle school teachers, parents, administrators and potential donors, she says, “This subject matter brings me back to the classroom where 
I started my career. It’s where my heart still is today, and it’s where we can create real change.” 

Taylor tells the audience that in San Jose, home to such tech companies as Adobe, eBay and TiVo, 95,000 families cannot afford to connect to the internet. Children in these households are unable to do research for school projects or get emails from their teachers and friends. Parents are cut off from their PTA and school administration. It is one more example of the divide that makes it hard for so many to keep up in the Valley.

Over the next 10 years, the Digital Inclusion Program hopes to put $24 million toward providing internet connectivity to 50,000 San Jose households. Liccardi and Taylor believe it will be a national model. 

One student told Taylor that the iPad she received through a pilot program not only helped with homework but also became her family’s only source of illumination once night fell.

Each of the families who participate will receive free training in using the internet to assist in all aspects of life, from accessing health care to finding employment to signing up for public services. One student told Taylor that the iPad she received through a pilot program not only helped with homework but also became her family’s only source of illumination once night fell.

Closing the digital divide, which the city says affects 47 percent of African American families and 36 percent of Latino families in San Jose, is an important means of bridging the equality gap that Taylor sees at the heart of the foundation’s mission. She is well aware of how fine the line can be between thriving and struggling.

“For most of my son’s life, I was a single mother,” she says. “To think that if my life had gone a different way—if I wasn’t fortunate enough to go to a school like Stanford that opened the opportunities it did—I see that I could have ended up in an RV with my child. It’s just not right that that is where so many people are right now.”

Editor's note: Nicole Taylor’s mother, Ionie Pablico, passed away in February 2020.


Melinda Sacks, ’74, is a senior writer at Stanford. Email her at msacks@stanford.edu.