Home / Technology / Special Section: Marc Benioff, Salesforce Chief, on the Strategic Benefits of Corporate Giving

Special Section: Marc Benioff, Salesforce Chief, on the Strategic Benefits of Corporate Giving

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Marc Benioff, chief of Salesforce, builds philanthropy into the business, donating equity, product and employee time. Credit Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Marc Benioff founded Salesforce.com, one of the first and most successful cloud computing software companies, in 1999. The stock has gained over 1,800 percent since the company went public in 2004, making Mr. Benioff, a onetime Oracle executive, a billionaire.

Besides his own giving, Mr. Benioff, 51, runs Salesforce with a “1-1-1” philosophy, annually donating 1 percent of its equity, 1 percent of its employee time and 1 percent of its product to nonprofits in communities where its employees live and work. That crossover of the once separate acts of traditional work and giving, he says, is a key part of building a company in a connected world. This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Q: How did this “1-1-1” philosophy begin?

A. It came out of my discontent. At Oracle everything was institutionalized, and no one cared. We wanted something more connected, something that had more community. So far, we’ve put software in 26,000 nonprofits and schools, provided $ 100 million in grants, and our people have done over 1.1 million volunteer hours around the world.

How does this work inside the company?

On the first day of work, people go volunteer at a school, the hospital, shelter. Next week my head of H.R. is going to Sri Lanka, taking 25 people to install a computer in a school there as part of the Room to Read organization. That’s my view of the next generation of business.

Say more about that.

I’m not a millennial, but it’s a millennial view of the world. Millennials want meaning in work. They want to feel like they improve the state of the world. The only way you get trust is through transparency. I won’t use your product if I don’t trust you. It’s true inside a company, too.

And this helps build trust, loyalty, productivity?

Look at the stock chart. It turns into something valuable in the world to be doing this.

So this is strategic?

It’s very strategic. Look at how big business really runs. It’s multidimensional, but so are we. We all have many parts.

You get labeled a rebel, a rule breaker. What do you think of those labels?

What does a future C.E.O. need to do? He has to have a clear vision for the company, but also for equality. Traditionally, people look to their political leaders for this; now they also look to the C.E.O. Speaking out on gay rights does not make me an activist; it means I care about my people. When I say women should be paid the same as men, that’s not activism; that’s caring about people. It’s about having a healthy workplace, and people who work here appreciate this.

The focus is on local giving, not the big world-changing stuff a lot of billionaires go in for. Why is that?

I know I can be successful with things I understand. I understand how to work with local schools, the University of California, San Francisco, local shelters. What I don’t understand, my employees can go and try to understand, like Room to Read. I do big presentations around the world, and we can always talk about local things people are doing. I can’t pick all of these things out. But I can get it in the culture.

It also seems like there is a theme of compassion — helping the homeless, feeding the hungry, as much as trying to end these problems altogether

I support research, too, but mindfulness is a part of this, too. It’s an anxious era. The antidote to anxiety is mindfulness. I resisted this idea, but I have these Buddhist monks staying at my other house in San Francisco. They came down to our office and led a session at our auditorium. They told me they’d been at Facebook and Google teaching mindfulness, relieving their suffering. Our level of stress was much better.

I can’t wait for that to show up on the Internet reviews of a company.

The monks also told me “we want to have a quiet floor.” I’m not sure about that — I’m negotiating with them, but we’re going to have mindfulness zones on the floors of our building, places where you can put your phone in a basket.

You also press a lot of younger chief executives to get involved in philanthropy now.

I did it to someone today at lunch. I say, “Now is your chance — you have people, resources, data center — you have power.” I did an onstage interview with Travis Kalanick, the head of Uber, at our user conference. I said, “Well, does Uber have a heart?” He had a few things, but he didn’t have an answer. At the end of our talk, I took him aside and said he has to integrate it more.

Our Pledge 1% Foundation has influenced almost 500 companies. But it’s individual: Uber has to find its role, Dropbox has to find its role, Airbnb has to find its role. It will be harder for some than others, but that’s O.K. Just get out and do something.

So you’d rather not be a Bill Gates — build something big, then dedicate yourself to something philanthropic?

That’s not where I am. I’m running a software company most of the time. If people said, “Marc was the head of Salesforce, now Marc is a philanthropist,” that would be a failure.

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