By Sandy Cyr
Building communities depends on working with other people. To work with other people, you have to maintain some degree of trust. Trust has been at the forefront of craigslist founder Craig Newmark’s work, from creating one of the largest online communities on the planet to his endeavors as a philanthropist.
Newmark’s philanthropic efforts evolved organically, as nonprofits recognized his capacity for building community online. From there, he started to see how he could better support areas that he believes in and is passionate about. Craig Newmark Philanthropies, his personal organization, officially formed a couple of years go, and it has four priority areas: trustworthy journalism; voter protection; women in technology; and veterans and military families.
A self-described ‘old-school nerd,’ Newmark credits ‘nerd values’ as driving him to help create social change. He is happy making enough money to live comfortably and help out family and friends. Beyond that, he prefers to put discretionary income toward helping great organizations solve some of America’s big issues. “Craig Newmark Philanthropies is my way of organizing and making sense of my philanthropic work because I had to figure out, ‘What are the focus areas that I believe in?’; ‘Where can I actually get something done that matters?’; and ‘How do I make that work within the nonprofit world?’” says Newmark.
While, as he admits, Newmark’s social appetite as a nerd is less than most, his success as a philanthropist is in large part because he surrounds himself with people he trusts to guide him in areas where he may have limited knowledge. Says Newmark, “In technology, we talk about webs of trust, which is to say, you start with people who you know are trustworthy, usually from experience, and then you rely on those folks to expand your network of trust.”
In his work with nonprofits, Newmark begins by finding people he can trust in the areas he wants to support. He then adds experience to his web – identifying organizations that are actually performing and delivering on their promises. “It is a slow process,” says Newmark, “and it can be a little scary when you move into an area where you know very little, but knowing very little is no excuse for inaction.”
Craig Newmark supports organizations in a range of areas, all of which, as he says, help to strengthen American democracy by supporting the values that the country aspires to: fairness, opportunity, and respect. Upon vetting a group, he invites them to apply for support from Craig Newmark Philanthropies. The team of people he works with to vet organizations is somewhat fluid, changing based on the priority area into which an applicant falls. “In the areas of philanthropy I focus on, there are people that I can talk to who can give me advice on different groups and can explain to me how effective they are. I don’t mind asking for help,” he says.
His approach to the vetting process is very much hands-on. When working with organizations, Newmark first finds out how much help the organization needs from him. In some cases, that means providing support in the areas of networking and communications. In others, the best thing may be to let the group do what they do best and get out of the way, and ask for no more than informal status updates. Newmark feels that a lot of time and effort goes into putting together a formal report, and that time and effort could be used to support the communities an organization serves.
Very often, there is a real or perceived power dynamic between funders and nonprofits. Craig Newmark, on the other hand, takes a collaborative approach. Newmark believes that impact can be managed by the experts on the ground, and he views his efforts as supporting one piece of a bigger puzzle: “I identify groups that get work done and then, in large part, leave them alone, unless I can add value. It sounds simplistic, but the idea is that sometimes help is the last thing really effective people need. That’s a lesson from craigslist, when, in 2000, I realized I was not the right person to lead the company any further, so I got the right people in place and got out of the way. Getting out of the way is really important, and it is often hard for people to do.”
Newmark views his philanthropy as a work in progress. He admits that there are limitations to his knowledge and skills, and he trusts that the organizations he supports will be a lot smarter than he could be in determining how to use his funding.
“My work is done on the expectation of success, maybe in the short-term, maybe in twenty years or more. I do know that some things won’t work as well as others, but in human matters, you can’t predict what is going to work out well. You do the best you can, and that’s worked out for me.”
Craig Newmark is a Web pioneer, philanthropist, and leading advocate on behalf of civic and social justice causes. Most commonly known for founding the online classified ads service craigslist, Newmark works to support and connect people and drive broad civic engagement. In 2016, Newmark founded Craig Newmark Philanthropies to advance people and grassroots organizations that are “getting stuff done” in areas that include trustworthy journalism, voter
protection, women in technology, and veterans and military families.
Sandy Cyr is the Managing Editor for the Philanthropy Journal, and a fan of all things related to the nonprofit sector.