June 23, 2015

Sean Parker Outlines Big Plans for His $600-Million Foundation

© Stanford/Splash News/Corbis

Billionaire Napster founder Sean Parker has donated $24 million and volunteered to be a medical research guinea pig to help find a cure for allergies.

Former Facebook president and Napster co-founder Sean Parker announced today he has established three priorities for his $600 million foundation: civic engagement, global public health, and life sciences.

Mr. Parker, who has been cagey about his priorities so far during his recent transition to big-time philanthropist, also said in a telephone interview that he intends to spend down his foundation’s assets during his lifetime.

He said his San Francisco-based foundation will focus on areas where he believes definable objectives can be attained.

"My guiding principle of all of my engagement is I try to only focus on the problems where I have some insight or a set of relationships or capabilities where I can actually do something about it and see a path to zero," he said.

One example of that approach, he said, was the $4.5 million grant he gave this month to the University of California at San Francisco to start a research program aimed at speeding up and improving the efficiency of malaria-eradication efforts worldwide.

"There’s a series of technologies that if you put them together correctly, there’s no reason why we can’t eradicate malaria in most of the world in probably the next 10 to 20 years," Mr. Parker said.

He added, "I’m trying to preserve an entrepreneurial approach, which is to only give when I feel that there’s a solution that’s fully complete."

Familiar Topics

Mr. Parker made The Chronicle’s annual Philanthropy 50 list of the most generous donors for the first time this year, ranking fifth.

His foundation will focus on causes he has supported in the past and topics he has studied over the years.

While there are a lot of problems Mr. Parker said he is passionate about, many of them, such as climate change and the education system, require changes driven by public policy because they are too big for philanthropy to address in anything other than a piecemeal way.

However, Mr. Parker isn’t immune to letting his personal feelings influence his philanthropy. He announced in December a $24-million grant to establish the Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy Research at Stanford University, saying his personal experiences with severe food allergies as a child influenced his gift.

Mr. Parker said he expects pushback to his priorities and approach, and he doesn’t expect complete success in all of his philanthropic endeavors. He said that criticism and failure are an integral part of both business and philanthropy.

"I may find myself having to endure as much scrutiny as praise for the things I’m trying to do," he said.

Allocating Funds

Mr. Parker also announced that he had shortened his foundation’s name from the Sean N. Parker Foundation to the Parker Foundation.

He said his civic-engagement efforts would include supporting the work of groups like Code for America, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and others. He will also pursue some of those efforts outside of the foundation, like his recent for-profit venture, Brigade, a social network for sharing political views.

Mr. Parker said he hasn’t yet decided how he will allocate his contributions to his foundation, and for now he is working on setting specific goals within each of the three focus areas. He and his board members will then map out a plan for how much money will go into each area and try to set a time period for when each goal should be met.

Mr. Parker said he will continue to contribute to his foundation, even as he works to spend it down.

The philanthropist, whose net worth Forbes pegged at just under $3-billion, is adamant about spending the foundation’s money during his lifetime.

He said the only reason he didn’t sign the Giving Pledge, an effort spearheaded by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates to encourage the rich to give at least half of their wealth to charity, is because he doesn’t think it’s aggressive enough. He thinks it only encourages people to transfer their wealth into intergenerational foundations that can get away with long-term tax breaks.

“If you’re going to be granted tax-exempt status and your income is going to be tax-exempted in a particular vehicle, then I think you should be obligated to consume those resources within your own lifetime, barring any unforeseen tragedy, if you can,” he said. “So you’ll see me at least meeting or exceeding the totals of the Giving Pledge within my lifetime.”

A father of two young children, he said he does not intend to leave the foundation — or much of his fortune — to future generations of Parkers because he doesn’t want it to become bureaucratic and hierarchical, as so many foundations that outlive their founders do.

"They begin to resemble governments in all the ways governments are bad," he said. "They’re slow, they’re conservative, they’re risk averse, and they try to do too many things."

Send an email to Maria Di Mento.