Benioff: Why philanthropy is good for us

Salesforce.com's CEO Marc Benioff traveled to the World Economic Forum at Davos in Switzerland to spread the word about corporate philanthropy.
Written by Phil Wainewright, Contributor
When I met with Salesforce.com's CEO Marc Benioff in London last week, he was on his way to the World Economic Forum at Davos in Switzerland
to spread the word about corporate philanthropy.

For obvious reasons, the company doesn't make a lot of noise about its good works, but Salesforce.com has made a big commitment to supporting community service initiatives, both locally and internationally, through the salesforce.com/foundation, a public charity established at the same time as the company itself.

Benioff ensured that the company adopted a model of donating"It's quite selfish really," says Benioff 1% of equity, 1% of profits and 1% of employee time right from the start. Salesforce.com's IPO in the summer of 2004 instantly turned that 1% of equity into a $12 million asset base, turning the foundation into a substantial organization overnight. But the donation of staff time is the most important aspect of the arrangement in Benioff's view because it ensures the whole company participates in the philanthropic program, profoundly affecting the company's culture.

Since the IPO, the foundation's asset base has grown to $18 million, a substantial part of which comes from employee donations of their own stock. "A lot of our employees now who have this valuable stock, because it's cultural, are pushing it into the Foundation," Benioff told me. "It's great."

The Foundation itself now employs staff in Dublin, London and Tokyo as well as in New York and San Francisco. "Their total jobs are just to make sure our employees are out there doing the work," said Benioff. Some employees give their time on a regular basis to local initiatives, while others take up to six days a year to help schools in deprived areas around the world, visiting countries as diverse as Kenya, Brazil or Poland.  

I asked Benioff how he answers critics who say that Salesforce.com shouldn't be spending resources this way when they ultimately belong to the company's shareholders.

"The reality is that this just makes a better company. It creates a better culture. You have a much more facilitative place [for staff], and there's a purpose to their work. So it's quite selfish really, because I think this is just one of the keys to creating a great company."

He acknowledges that putting in equity right from the start has made it easier for Salesforce than for most public companies, who would have to find the capital somewhere else if they wanted to copy his three-pronged model of equal proportions of equity, profit and employee time. "But here's the key: I think everybody just needs to do something."

Hence the journey to mix with the world's business and political elite at Davos, where salesforce.com/foundation is distributing preview excerpts of a new book Benioff is working on (a follow-up to Compassionate Capitalism, the book he launched at Davos in 2004). "Over twenty CEOs have written chapters in the book on how they do corporate philanthropy— and the thing is, there are lots of different models, it’s just that they haven’t been really well documented, and that’s really the key."

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