More Than Money: A Tech Giant’s Commitment to Public Schools

October 4, 2018, the philanthropic arm of Salesforce, recently committed $15.5 million to local school districts in San Francisco and Oakland. With this gift, Salesforce has given more than $50 million to Bay Area public schools over the company’s five-year partnership with the districts.

Salesforce has long been a trailblazer in corporate giving. Under the leadership of co-CEO Marc Benioff, the company has followed a 1-1-1 philosophy—donating 1 percent of its equity, 1 percent of its products and 1 percent of its employees’ time to charitable causes. As we’ve reported, it’s also been successfully proselytizing this model to other tech companies, including by creating the Pledge 1% campaign, which has enlisted hundreds of tech firms.

Salesforce has been a stalwart supporter of local public school districts in cities where it maintains offices. Earlier this year, the company committed $500,000 in support to Indianapolis Public Schools. The city hosts the company’s biggest hub outside San Francisco. The gift built on employee volunteerism in the district.

The commitment is notable in a philanthropic milieu where gifts of this size to public school districts are still fairly uncommon. There are exceptions to that rule, but by and large, in the recent past, philanthropists have been wary of making large donations to big, urban school districts. Years of big donations with little progress in traditional public school districts led many in philanthropy to shift focus to charter schools and nonprofit education groups like Teach for America.

Like the gift to Indianapolis, Saleforce’s partnership with Bay Area schools started relatively small, at least compared with its scale today. In 2013, the company started with a $2.7 million grant to the San Francisco Unified School District. Three years ago, Salesforce expanded its giving to include the Oakland Unified School District. Grants have grown steadily in size each year, and this year was no exception.

A Tech Leader Doubles Down on Its “Big Bet” On Local Public Schools

The $8.5 million to the San Francisco Unified School District will support a middle school teaching residency, professional development for teachers in the AVID program supporting potential first-generation college students, and summer programming for underserved kids, including the district’s Black Star Rising program for African American kids.

Funding will also support the creation and implementation of curricula in math, science and computer science. Computer science curriculum has been an animating focus of Salesforce’s work with the school district, playing to its strengths as a tech firm that can bring more than just grant money to local schools. A key part of the company’s assistance has been the time of its skilled employees, who have volunteered in schools.

This support helped the district to become the first in the country to implement computer science curriculum from pre-K through 12th grade. Only about 25 percent of schools in the country offer computer science classes. The district reports that adopting the curriculum has led to huge increases in the number of girls, low-income students and children of color taking computer science classes—groups notably underrepresented in the tech industry.

The focus on computer science isn’t unusual for corporate funders, which often pair altruism with causes that in the long term work in their self-interest. A robust talent pipeline of potential future employees who are skilled coders benefits Salesforce in the long run. Many companies in technology and industry support efforts to bolster STEM education, especially when it comes to getting young women more interested in the subjects.

In Oakland, $7 million will strengthen computer science offerings in grade school and middle school, provide support for students in math, continue whole-child support for immigrant students, and improve mental health offerings for kids experiencing social, emotional and behavioral challenges.

As part of both grants, middle school principals will get $100,000 in unrestricted funds to pursue ideas they’re excited about in their schools. In San Francisco, principals of all the city’s 21 K-8 middle schools will access funds. In Oakland, all middle school principals will receive the funding for the first time, an expansion from 13 middle school principals last year.

Successful projects from principals in the past have been picked up and scaled at the district level by Salesforce. The work supporting immigrant and refugee students in the Oakland Unified School District started when middle school principals used their $100,000 funds to hire social workers to help newcomer students adjust.

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