High-tech industry courted by nonprofits

Young millionaires in D.C. corridor cling tightly to new wealth

June 14, 1999|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Peter Ladd Gilsey, a veteran fund-raiser with an aristocratic lilt and a mission for high art, comes from an era when culture mavens did not wear Mickey Mouse ties. But times have changed: Instead of old-money blue bloods, Gilsey is hitting up newly minted techie millionaires half his age -- talking cyberspace and even computer-nerdifying his wardrobe to make his pitch.

Gilsey, like other fund-raisers in the high-tech corridor surrounding Washington, is on a crusade to tap the region's newest wealth. Philanthropic groups here are realizing that this booming high-tech industry -- which employs more capital-area workers than the federal government -- is the next great source of money for good causes.

Donations to nonprofits have remained stable in recent years, and fund-raisers are dying to strike new gold. But they are finding the campaign to capture tech dollars fierce, and at times, fruitless.

"When I first started, you didn't have stomachaches about getting people involved in the arts," said Gilsey, a septuagenarian asset manager and volunteer fund-raiser for the Washington Performing Arts Society. "Now," he sighs, "you have to be patient."

As an older generation of philanthropists dies out, Gilsey and his colleagues hope to replace them with tech geniuses in blue jeans. But many whiz kids are only just waking up to the scope of their wealth.

The transition is rough. Many nonprofits are frustrated that a region full of millionaires is not imitating the Rockefellers or Carnegies -- or even Microsoft's Bill Gates, one of the world's top philanthropists. On the West Coast, where tech wealth has been maturing for a while, nonprofits are seeing a boom in tech involvement. But the same cannot be said here.

"We know there's a lot of high-tech growth here, but we haven't seen that reflected in dollar terms," said Kate Conover, vice president of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, a Washington-based charitable funding watchdog. "I don't think there's a single answer as to why they're not giving. They haven't thought about it yet and they haven't felt the need."

There are some exceptions in the tech community, which extends around the Capital Beltway with its heart in northern Virginia. Barely a presence in fund raising two years ago, America Online launched a foundation last year that spent $400,000 for technology-related education programs and donated technical expertise to a variety of nonprofits. Elsewhere in northern Virginia, the nonprofit tech-based Morino Institute spent more than $1 million last year promoting new high-tech businesses and helping disadvantaged youth.

Tech insiders say more efforts are in the works, but argue that much of the tech community is working too hard securing its success to start making large-scale donations. Given the "just do it" philosophy of the tech culture, advocates say Internet entrepreneurs are likely to want extra involvement and creativity once they do get involved -- instead of just writing checks and walking away.

"By nature these are people who don't do things passively -- they really do believe they're changing the world with their venture through the Internet, and I really think in philanthropy they would be the same way," said Matthew Pittinsky, 26, chairman of Blackboard Inc., a Washington Internet start-up.

Still, many tech executives acknowledge that -- to this point -- fund-raisers have been stiff-armed.

"Tech firms certainly are using the resources of the community today and not giving back," said Mario Morino, 55, the Morino Institute founder worth a reported $100 million after selling his northern Virginia software company three years ago. "But there is a fundamental sea change happening right now. Now is the time people will start stepping forward to give back to their communities -- waves of people over the next 20 years."

That involvement might prove startling.

"What did Van Gogh's wheat fields smell like?" asked Douglas Koelemay, spokesman for the Northern Virginia Technology Council, speculating on the effect of tech money on the arts. "You could add the smells of the field -- the sounds of the field -- and click while you're watching the painting. In some ways, tech involvement does challenge nonprofits."

Fund-raisers, unsure about sniffing masterpieces, say they are trying to persuade potential donors to give in the first place. Debate over how that money is spent lies further in the future.

"We're trying to create a new generation of philanthropists," said Kevin McMahon, executive vice president of the Kennedy Center, who is attempting -- vainly -- to fill his board with tech company CEOs. "It is a difficult task. First and foremost, you've got to make these newly wealthy individuals aware of the concept of philanthropy, before you can persuade them your cause is right."

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