Why Salesforce Has A Chief Philanthropy Officer

And why other companies should follow suit.

Why Salesforce Has A Chief Philanthropy Officer
[Photo: Scott Webb via Unsplash/Joel Filipe via Unsplash]

Over the past two years, Silicon Valley unicorns Atlassian, Box, Pure Storage, and Twillio all went public, earning billion dollar valuations. At the same time–and while less profitable–each was already giving back as a member of Pledge 1%, an initiative for companies to donate at least 1% of their time, equity, or product annually to charity. Since the program launched over two years ago, more than 1,300 companies in 38 countries have joined.


“The reason that we messaged it like that is because every company on the planet has those assets. It doesn’t matter where you are located or what you do,” says Suzanne DiBianca, the former president and cofounder of the Salesforce Foundation, who initially helped pioneer the concept. Eventually, she hopes to see the trend become so successful that the program puts itself out of business. “We want to provide playbooks that make it easy for everyone to get going . . . My vision for this thing is it becomes the new normal for how you start a company,” she adds.

In the meantime, DiBianca and Salesforce broke new ground by giving her a new title and management on the for-profit side of the company starting in April 2016. As chief philanthropy officer and executive vice president of corporate relations, DiBianca hopes to fix what she says is a fundamental hang-up in corporate giving: that generosity often seems market-dependent. “Traditional philanthropy is funded by a percentage of earnings based on quarterly results. There are a whole lot of flaws with that,” she says, noting that a down quarter–or longer if the economy itself stumbles like it has at times over the last two decades–means investments are often pulled back at the times they’re most important. “We wanted to be able to show up regardless of the company performance or economic climate.”

Salesforce’s most basic charitable agreement, which started back in 2000, is dubbed the 1-1-1 model because it covers all three of those Pledge 1% categories at once. Over the last decade and a half, It has become a huge operation, supplying free or heavily discounted services to 30,000 nonprofits and educational institutions, while donating another $137 million in grants to two causes that are in line with improving opportunity that could be related to their own sector. Educational groups such as Black Girls Code and CoderDojo have benefited, along with workforce development organizations such as YearUp and Genesys Works. Employees have cumulatively spent 1.8 million total hours–they get a week of so-called “volunteer time off” annually–to do things ranging from coaching little league to building schools and health clinics.

As CPO, she wants to create a “bigger umbrella” for analyzing how efforts across company divisions can lead to broader social change. Over the last year, that’s meant not just supporting the concept of equal pay for women but auditing their books and making a $3 million adjustment to fix internal discrepancies. And not just fostering an LGBT-friendly work environment but rallying other business leaders to actively oppose bills creating discriminatory policies in Indiana, Georgia, and North Carolina. (It boycotted travel to some areas, discontinued supporting programs there, and moved employees out of Indiana.)

The idea is that instead of letting workers tackle cause work as side projects, the company can adopt those causes affecting its employees—and throw its weight behind them. “Well, these are not my decisions. These are the decisions of my employees. I am advocating on their behalf,” CEO Marc Benioff told Time, noting that from a workplace-happiness perspective and broader social contract with your customers anything that enables “anti-LGBT” rhetoric should be viewed was “anti-business.”

The company’s equality push includes diversifying their own workforce by providing training for underserved future employees. It has launched a veteran training group called VetForce, and actively recruits and trains people with disabilities. It has partnered with public schools in San Francisco to establish computer science as part of the curriculum, which has been shown to correlate with higher math and grade point averages in the area.


In some cases, donating to nonprofits creates a virtuous cycle. Salesforce not only helps fund the nonprofit YearUp, which works with young adults who aren’t necessarily tracking to go to college, but also hires roughly 170 of the program’s students each year–about 70% of whom go on to become full-time employees. On the environmental side, DiBianca’s bigger umbrella includes a plan to convert the company to 100% renewable energy–the company is about 40% of the way there, through a partnership with two U.S.-based wind farms.

What’s important is that she’s empowered both to set these goals and ensure that departments plan ahead for how to achieve them. “You don’t have to do philanthropy as a new program. It’s just thinking differently about your business,” DiBianca says. “A lot of this stuff has been born up in our company but in a real grassroots way. I think the narrative and work is bigger now.” As with Pledge 1%, they’re hoping other companies see the profitability in following suit.

About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.