News and analysis
September 29, 2014

Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen Wants to Teach You How to Give

Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, a Silicon Valley millionaire who steers her family’s money into philanthropy and advises the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and other technology entrepreneurs about how to give, says she is tired of reading about wealthy philanthropists. After all, she says, ordinary Americans drive much of the nation’s giving.

That’s just one of the many dichotomies that make Ms. Arrillaga-Andreessen, a Stanford philanthropy professor, not only one of the most intriguing young scions of Bay Area wealth in the country but also one of today’s important thinkers about giving.

As the daughter of the billionaire real-estate developer John Arrillaga and the wife of technology investor and innovator Marc Andreessen, it would be easy to dismiss her claimed interest in the masses who can’t afford to donate the millions of dollars she and her family do if it weren’t for the 15 years she has spent teaching and writing about philanthropy.

Her latest effort is a massive online open course that debuts next week and whose main goal is to show that anyone of any income level has the power to bring about social change through smart, strategic giving. She has enlisted the stars of the nonprofit world, like Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, Scott Harrison, founder of Charity: Water, and Premal Shah, the first president of Kiva.

The seven-week MOOC, called Giving 2.0, is part of Ms. Arrillaga-Andreessen’s effort to democratize philanthropy.

"The MOOC is sort of a greatest-hits playlist to help individuals actualize their philanthropic potential through volunteer opportunities, through using technology to create good, through learning the right questions to ask, and through speaking a new programming language for how it is we give and how it is we act and react to philanthropy," she says.

And nonprofit leaders say Ms. Arrillaga-Andreessen’s dual role as both philanthropy scholar—she founded Stanford’s academic center on philanthropy—and donor adds gravitas to the course.

"She is marrying the worlds of theory and practice, and my reaction is thank the Lord somebody is doing this," says Nancy Lublin, a guest lecturer for the MOOC and chief executive of Do Something, a charity that seeks to inspire youth activism.

A Lighter Side

Ms. Arrillaga-Andreessen’s eclectic interests and personality are capturing growing attention.

Her academic credentials are strong: She has a bachelor's and three master’s degrees from Stanford. And she is a striking woman fond of wearing black clothes and glittering crosses. A recent profile in Vogue magazine focuses on her philanthropy work but gives a healthy dose of attention to her good looks and gothic style. And a Wall Street Journal article in September shows both her seriousness and a goofy side. She's prone to shouting giddily when excited about something, and her zeal over her work to coach a new generation of philanthropists can sometimes bring her to the brink of exhaustion.

"It’s so exciting for me that I can’t go to sleep at night until I’m like literally physically sick from tiredness, because this opportunity is so extraordinary," she says.

She also frequently pokes fun at herself and recently shot a playful video in which she is shown dancing, falling asleep at the gym, and engaging in crazed Stanford boosterism on a Palo Alto street corner to promote her educational work.

And while she clearly is interested in donors at the lower rungs of the economic ladder, there is no doubt that she is a leading voice among Silicon Valley’s elite givers.

Her first official project goes back to 1998 when she started the Silicon Valley Social Venture Fund, known as SV2, to spur greater generosity and more effective giving among the Bay Area’s new tech millionaires.

Free Expertise

But her main focus right now is clearly on bringing her expertise to the masses free through the MOOC.

The course is third in a line of projects she has developed through her Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen Foundation. She established the operating foundation this year to act as a kind of lab for new ways of thinking about philanthropy and for her related educational programs.

Those programs, plus her Stanford courses and the book she wrote in 2011 (Giving 2.0: Transform Your Giving and Our World) are aimed broadly at the 90 percent of Americans who gave to charity last year—and the next generation of donors, too.

With millennials placing a premium on working for companies with robust philanthropy and social-change components, says Ms. Arrillaga-Andreessen, the question is not whether they will be philanthropic but how they will give.

Her MOOC will preach a hands-on, step-by-step giving process that involves researching and evaluating nonprofits and creating a giving plan, before ultimately selecting a charity for a gift.

She has joined with the Learning by Giving Foundation, which has offered online philanthropy courses of its own and is providing $100,000 for grants that her students will direct to the organizations they choose to support. The foundation was established by Warren Buffet's sister Doris Buffett and her grandson Alexander Buffett Rozek.

The online class also will teach students how to create a long-term plan to use their time, money, expertise, and social and professional networks to make the most of all of their philanthropic efforts.

Weekly lectures and coursework are centered on a particular theme, like selecting a cause or how to assess a nonprofit’s work, and are paired with a series of videos. The videos include lectures and case studies presented by about two dozen guest experts from the business, nonprofit, and technology worlds. Students will also participate in small virtual discussion groups.

She will help students choose an issue to concentrate on, identify which organizations are involved, and refine their focus. Students will then analyze various strategies, assess which ones have the greatest potential to create social change, and evaluate the nonprofits applying that strategy.

After students select a top candidate, they will write a complete assessment of their nonprofit’s work. The students will then vote on one another’s assessments, and the nonprofits with the most votes will be awarded grants.

Ms. Arrillaga-Andreessen estimates that individual grants will range from $3,000 to $5,000.

Students will also learn to ask the three questions she says should drive every giving decision a person makes: How can a donor know if a gift has made a difference? What lessons from a donation can be applied to the next contribution and shared with others? And is the gift going to an organization that is going to be able to make the most of it?

"Every decision we make to fund something," she says, "Is inherently a decision not to fund countless other organizations that could potentially have used the resources better."

That concept is a big reason she wants the MOOC and her other programs available free and online.

"We have to create a new culture of knowledge-sharing about both what works and what doesn’t work," she says.

The nonprofit world, she says, lacks the "market-forcing functions" that make some businesses succeed and others fail. "We don’t have a culture in the nonprofit sector of saying negative things about people who are, for the most part, operating with the best of intentions," she says. "So there’s this huge chasm between the act of giving and understanding whether or not we’ve actually created any measurable social change with our generosity."

Being able to reach all types of people through the MOOC is a very good thing, says Michael Moody, Frey Foundation Chair in Philanthropy at the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University, not only because it helps eliminate preconceived notions so many people hold that philanthropy is only for the wealthy but also because such courses can get at some of the misconceptions people have about what makes a good nonprofit and what does not.

But he cautions that given how philanthropy is tied to people’s deeply held moral and cultural perspectives, class discussions could be difficult given the nature of a MOOC setting where not every student is in the same space, both literally because it is online and in other ways because MOOCs enable people from so many diverse backgrounds to participate.

While there is a potential for conversations to go awry or for people to disengage because they don’t feel like they’re being understood, he says, he hope courses like Ms. Arrillaga-Andreessen's flourish.

"I’m hugely supportive of using MOOCs like this because I think philanthropy education needs to be much more widespread," he says. "The importance of it to people’s lives doesn’t match the extent to which it’s being taught."

Case Study

Nancy Heinen, who leads SV2’s board, sought out Ms. Arrillaga-Andreessen’s expertise six years ago.

After more than 20 years in the corporate world, including 12 years as Apple’s general counsel and vice president, Ms. Heinen wanted to become more involved in philanthropy and use her skills to help nonprofits.

She says learning to evaluate and choose a nonprofit to support through Ms. Arrillaga-Andreessen’s intensive system was both valuable and challenging. Ms. Arrillaga-Andreessen taught her to let go of faulty assumptions about how nonprofits should operate, and Ms. Heinen today sees herself as a case study in the benefits of learning Ms. Arrillaga-Andreessen’s approach to purposeful giving.

"I feel more intelligent about the grant making," says Ms. Heinen. "Before SV2, it was really just about how much money can I contribute. Now a lot of what I’ve learned advising the nonprofits is the different capabilities I can bring, and there is real joy in being helpful financially—and in other more significant ways."

Whether it is advising the wealthy or teaching college students and donors of modest means, Ms. Arrillaga-Andreessen says she hopes all of her work will help others give in ways that matter more.

"The world can’t have enough highly effective philanthropists, highly effective philanthropy educators, or highly effective students passionate about social change."

About Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen

Age: 44

Family giving legacy: Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen is the youngest of two children of John Arrillaga Sr., a co-founder of Peery Arrillaga, a real-estate development firm in Palo Alto, Calif., who has given at least $250-million to Stanford University, and the late Frances Arrillaga. She is married to Marc Andreessen, the technology entrepreneur and venture capitalist. The couple gave $27.5-million to Stanford Hospitals & Clinics in 2007.

Education: She earned four degrees from Stanford University: bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art history, an MBA, and a master’s degree in education.

Philanthropic accomplishments: She created the Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen Foundation this year to provide free online philanthropy education resources. She also founded and is chairwoman of the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society and started SV2 (the Silicon Valley Social Venture Fund) to encourage wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to give more generously and effectively. She has taught at the Stanford Graduate School of Business since 2000, where she created a course on strategic philanthropy.

Publications: She wrote the 2011 book, Giving 2.0.

Her first taste of philanthropy: As a seventh-grader she organized Castilleja School’s first schoolwide food drive for the Ecumenical Hunger Program.

Send an e-mail to Maria Di Mento.