Posted by on Dec 21, 2015 Views: 5421

Inspiration Break: Craig Newmark on (dry) humor, humility, and helping others

Inspiration Break: A series of interviews with Nonprofits thought leaders.

Craig Newmark is a self-described nerd, Web pioneer, philanthropist, and advocate of technology for the public good through his craigconnects initiative. Craig is the founder of craigslist, started in 1995 and now one of the world’s most-visited websites. He continues to work with craigslist as a customer service representative.

Craig serves on the board of directors of the Poynter Foundation,  Center for Public Integrity, Sunlight Foundation, Consumers Union/Consumer  Reports, Blue Star Families, and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America; on the Board of Overseers of the Columbia Journalism Review; and as advisor to nearly twenty other renowned non-profit organizations, of which GreatNonprofits is one (see the full list at  craigconnects.org/organizations).

CN-11 Craig Newmark Photo credit Bleacher+Everard

You give  away the majority of your money.  What inspired this?

Disclaimer: nothing altruistic or noble about this, explained below, note “dysfunction.”

Somehow, Sunday School kinda worked, teaching me to know when enough is enough.

When offered big money for my work, I figured that no one really needs a billion dollars. That’s when I decided to monetize very little of the company (craigslist).

As a result, we’ve made a big contribution to the US economy, but have no way to quantify that.(Suggestions appreciated.)

Anyway, I’m a nerd, old-school, meaning no instinct for social convention, minimal social  skills. That includes dysfunctional behavior, like I just don’t get why people bother with big houses, fast cars, all that.

I do see the money changes people, and that often doesn’t end well.

Also, we might be talking about less money than people think; there’s no accurate reporting about my net worth.

What makes giving satisfying for you?

I want to make a difference, motivated by the idea of tikkun olam, literally, “repairing the world.”

I contribute my name and cash to legit organizations that are good at getting stuff done.

What advice would you give to people in technology who are making a lot of money, but not yet giving?

It’s time to lend a hand to people who need a little help. Treat people like you want to be treated.

You still do customer service at craigslist.  Not many other wealthy philanthropists have so much daily, direct contact with everyday people.  Has this “anchor to reality”, as you’ve called it, shaped your approach to giving?

Disclosure: I do just enough customer service to stay in touch with what’s real.

We help people put food on the table, we help people get that table, we help people put a roof over that table.

Customer service reminds me to focus on real human needs, to ignore scammers with good cover stories.

That’s why I support nonprofits that are good at doing something real, and avoid nonprofits with good cover stories that are really running scams.

You do a lot  to publicize nonprofits. Not a lot of other donors do this. Why do you do it?

It’s the good work of nonprofits that needs attention. Not me.

Honest nonprofits need to get the word out, they’re competing with scammers with a good story.

(Do I sound like I’ve done a lot of scam fighting?)

Who is your favorite hero of fiction?

Can’t think of one.

Who are your heroes in real  life?

Leonard Cohen, from the Old Testament.

What is your motto?

I’m not as funny as I think I am.

Who is your favorite teacher?    

Favorite teacher: Anton Shulski, high school history, who taught me, in effect that “a [trustworthy] press is the immune system of democracy”

You’ve volunteered a lot. You volunteered at the Dept. of Veterans affairs, you volunteer serving on nonprofit boards and as an advisor to nonprofits. Can you tell me more about what drew you to volunteering and what you find rewarding? Any advice for people who are new to volunteering?

It’s more like I’m supporting the people who get the real work done.

For new volunteers: some groups are really effective, and that’ll feel good, but some are not very good at anything, and some are only very good at cashing checks, so be careful.