First Principles 2022: An evolution and a new beginning.

This month, we hosted the fourth annual First Principles Forum, back in person after two years of virtual gatherings. What began as an experiment – a group of tech leaders with a shared goal of getting better at giving, convening – has now become an established community, poised to make a much bigger difference together.

Gathering via Zoom in 2020 and 2021, we continued to build the community – but meeting in person was a different feeling altogether. There was so much tenderness in the room (about the state of the world, and about our role in it).

We met at The Pearl this year. We heard from members who left tech to go into government, about navigating career changes. We discussed how to talk with our kids about giving, in the context of how to speak with them about money at all. We talked about how crypto might change giving. And much, much more.

For the first time, First Principles members stood before the group and shared their own giving approaches (their principles, if you will). Some gave their moment on stage to leaders working for racial justice and wealth building, others talked about their own firsthand experiences. It was practical and emotional (for me, at least!) at the same time.

And the group pushed us—the organizers—and each other to reexamine our limits. True to our established group norms of creating safety, inviting curiosity, disconnecting from outside distractions, and taking chances, our members engaged in uncomfortable conversations. We opened up to questions about power, inequality, and trust that are too often set aside in conversations about philanthropy and impact.

Members asked for a provocation from Rob Reich focused on the flaws, foibles, and fallacies in philanthropy—in particular as they impact our democracy and our ability to participate in a fully functioning civil society. Rob invited us to analyze philanthropy without an assumption of self-congratulation for magnanimity and grace. He encouraged us to remember the democratically-decided subsidy for philanthropy (through our tax system), and the largely unchecked influence of philanthropy (for worse and for better) on our systems and institutions behind our democracy and society. 

Philanthropy can consider longer time horizons. Philanthropy can resist electoral pressure. Philanthropy can be “risk capital”—speculative and flexible. Philanthropy can be patient, investing to solve social challenges that require time. Philanthropy can make consistent investments without the promise of early returns. In so many ways, philanthropy can be what we choose to make it.

This year’s Forum was both a continuation and a new beginning. As excited as I am about the Forum itself, what comes next will be even better. We have seen the way First Principles can impact the lives of smart, dedicated, capable leaders—our members give big, give in new ways, and change lanes to take their assets into the public realm. Now, our community is growing, becoming more established, and it is up to all of us to realize the potential we saw and felt together. The leaders of the First Principles community are inviting us to declare our values, and move beyond learning together, to acting together.

I left thinking on our next steps, and the reality is that what comes next isn’t up to me or our First Principles team at Stanford PACS. What comes next is up to the First Principles community. We are here to facilitate, to learn, and engage. And with the litany of precedent-breaking decisions being announced by the Supreme Court, we feel the need, as they say, now more than ever.

In 2023, we look forward to further integrating the First Principles community with our other Stanford PACS learning communities and to continuing to ask hard questions together. We announced at the Forum that, in a long-planned interweaving of the Philanthropy Innovation Summit and First Principles communities, next year’s First Principles Forum will take place in a dedicated track at the 2023 Philanthropy Innovation Summit (we hope to see you there, on Stanford’s campus on March 1, 2023). The First Principles continues to evolve – the way it co-evolves with the Summit community might just deepen and broaden both.