News and analysis
December 04, 2011

A Twitter Co-Founder Starts Small With Family Charity

Adrian Mendoza

Livia and Biz Stone’s charity, now in its second year, has seen cash infusions not only from his Twitter riches but also from his appearance in a Stolichnaya vodka ad.

More than 100 million people use Twitter to communicate in at least 17 languages.

But Biz Stone, who would have a serious payday if the site he helped found goes public, decided to start small with his family’s nonprofit.

When Mr. Stone and his wife, Livia, set up their charity, they wanted to work on a small number of local issues. Now in its second year, the organization is making grants to schools in the San Francisco Bay area and other charities the couple has supported for years.

“As we learn and get better, we’ll increase our budget and increase our reach,” Mr. Stone says. “We wanted to be able to make our mistakes now on a more modest level. And we are pretty darn sure we are going to make a lot of mistakes.”

In its first year, they focused on one project: helping to pay for afterschool programs and other enrichment activities at Henry Haight Elementary School, in Alameda, Calif.

The Stones’ donation allowed low-income students to attend the after-school program on a scholarship. Teachers also told the Stones that finding money to transport students for field trips was a major challenge.

“School buses are very expensive,” says Kathleen Collins, a reading teacher at Henry Haight. The Stones, she adds, “asked us what might be barriers, and we said transportation.”

The charity also paid for the Marine Mammal Center’s Whale Bus and WildCare Bay Area’s Nature Van to come to the school, allowing students to get hands-on experience with the natural world.

Forming Relationships

Ms. Stone, who runs the couple’s nonprofit with one part-time employee, says she looks for opportunities to work with teachers to find solutions to their problems.

She says it helps that she has served as a volunteer for several organizations and was a former WildCare employee. She says she came to understand why donors and nonprofits need to build trust in each other.

“All of those experiences combined made me really value having personal connections with people and really getting to know them,” Ms. Stone says.

And Ms. Collins says she’s seen firsthand the importance of that relationship. For many grants, teachers must first find out about opportunities and then write a proposal, which can be a low priority compared with other tasks.

“What I appreciate about them is that they came to us and said, 'How can we help make this happen?’” Ms. Collins says.

Lifelong Work

For now, Mr. and Ms. Stone finance their philanthropy with cash infusions because much of their wealth is tied up in Twitter stock and other projects. The Wall Street Journal has reported that the company, which is still private, may be worth as much as $8.4-billion.

The Stones recently raised more than $50,000 for the foundation from 100 guests at a small party in San Francisco. The charity has also received money from an unlikely source: a vodka commercial.

Mr. Stone was asked to do a commercial for Stolichnaya vodka in which two Mr. Stones talk about Twitter over a drink. He agreed, after some hesitation about promoting alcohol, and used the money he made to help pay for the foundation’s projects.

“We said, 'Wait a minute. We can just have the Russians fund Bay Area schools,’” Mr. Stone recalls. “Strange opportunities come around like that because of my, kind of, new place in the world.”

The Stones recently started supporting two schools in addition to Henry Haight—Peres Elementary in Richmond, Calif., and United for Success Academy, in Oakland—and four other programs. Oakland’s Museum of Children’s Art, the music-and-dance nonprofit Young Imaginations, PRBO Conservation Science’s Students and Teachers Restoring a Watershed program, and the Chabot Space & Science Center are all working with the charity and the schools.

Both Mr. and Ms. Stone say they hope to make the Biz and Livia Stone Foundation a lifelong project.

“One of my personal theories is that altruism has compound interest, and the earlier you get started, the more impact you can have over time,” Mr. Stone says.

“Even if it’s somewhat modest at this point, we think that’s better because we feel we have a lot to learn.”