Billionaires Donate $30 Million to Fund Homeless Research Project

lynne and marc benioff

Lynne and Marc Benioff donated $30 million to the University of California in San Francisco. Earmarked for evidence-based research, the money will be used to create the UCSF Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative. This initiative will help find sustainable solutions to ending homelessness.

Marc Benioff is the Chief Executive Officer for the San Francisco based customer relationship management company Salesforce. A longtime ally and advocate of policies to address homelessness, Benioff helped spearhead last year’s movement to pass Proposition C.

Despite receiving criticism from competitors in the tech industry, Proposition C is an approved ballet initiative. Lawmakers designed the initiative to tax large companies based in San Francisco and use the funds to combat homelessness. It is still in the process of receiving approval from California courts.

Finding the best strategy for using Prop C funds motivated the Benioffs to make their generous donation. While many have rightfully applauded them, others have criticized the decision. These people believe the funding should go directly to creating housing. But let’s use Los Angeles Proposition HHH as an example.

The bond measure created $1.2 billion dollars of funding. Yet in three-year’s time, it has yet to produce one housing unit. Considering San Francisco’s inflated housing market, $30 million dollars would not create a lot of housing either. It’s safe to argue by investing in quality research, more homeless people will be helped off the streets and into housing.

The Benioff’s massive donation sends a clear message to other business leaders as well as the entire nation: We need high-quality, evidence-based research to influence community stakeholders.

Why Research on Homelessness Is Critical

Homelessness is a systemic problem. Research is a critical component to ending homelessness because there are so many lingering questions yet to be answered. Margot Kushel MD, Director of the University of California at San Francisco’s Department of Medicine’s Center for Vulnerable Populations, recently took to Twitter to outline some key questions. Kushel is the principal researcher that will work on the UCSF Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative.

As a Director at one of the world’s leading public research institutions, Kushel is in a unique position to address homelessness. The Center for Vulnerable Populations is focused on solving the most critical public health challenges for the most vulnerable citizens. With a $30 million research donation, Kushel will be able to complete the research necessary to end homelessness not only in California’s Bay Area, but around the world.

According to Kushel, a lack of affordable housing is key to the rise of US homelessness. In the US, there are only 35 affordable housing units for every 100 extremely low-income families. In California, the situation is even worse. There are only 22 low-cost housing units available for every 100 of the neediest.

Homelessness has been examined to various degrees. Research has been used to create policies such as the United States’ federal approach to homelessness, a policy known as Housing First. Advocating for the creation of permanent supportive housing, Housing First does not have conditions such as sobriety. (Earlier approaches to managed housing programs required homeless people comply with conditions like sobriety.)

San Francisco was an early adopter of the Housing First model. Despite this, its homeless population has swelled to the third largest in the United States.

For this reason, smart, well-designed research studies are essential.

Housing First Can End Homelessness

Leading researchers such as Mary Cunningham, Senior Fellow and Vice President of Metropolitan Housing and Communities at the Urban Institute, believe Housing First will end homelessness. But it must be applied in a thoughtful, evidence-based way.

Cunningham recently outlined key questions left to answer about policies to end homelessness on Twitter:

  • What is the true number of people at-risk for homelessness?

While exit flow (numbers of people exiting homelessness) are clear, no one truly knows how many people are homeless or at-risk of being homelessness due to shortfalls, such as the point-in-time counting system.

  • What measures can be put in place to ensure those who enter low-cost housing are able to keep it and not experience prejudice?

Cunningham emphasizes the evidence supporting universal vouchers though confirms other lingering questions about this topic. Chief among these are her questions about how housing markets will be able to absorb the formerly homeless population as they transition into housing.

  • What incentives are necessary for getting landlords to participate in low-cost housing programs?

Cunningham also questions what market rates low-cost housing rents will need to be set at to prevent excessive inflation.

  • What can be done for those most at-risk for homelessness?

Many of the most vulnerable will likely still require support to be able to maintain housing. How can these supports be applied in a way that respects dignity and individual choice?

  • What will micro-units for low income adults look like?

Cunningham outlines that most homeless people are single adults. Micro-units are a housing concept that need further research to best be applied to urban planning and policy making addressing homelessness.

  • What will an affordable, effective and sustainable permanent supportive housing model look like?

Cunningham highlights the need for research to build scalable solutions.

Ready to Tackle Key Questions

Thanks to the Benioff’s generous donation, this research can now be carried out. Kushel confirmed her desire to use the funds allocated to UCSF to tackle these topics, among others. Key questions she aims to address include:

  • Who is not being served by the permanent supportive housing model?

Kushel outlines that current services are not meeting the needs of all homeless people. Thus, her research will analyze the gaps in coverage and find the best solution for addressing homelessness in the Bay Area.

  • How can services be designed for an aging homeless population?

By 2030, the aging homeless population has been predicted to triple. Kushel feels research will need to be designed to serve this vulnerable and expanding population.

  • Will services for homeless people also encompass personal care?

Many individuals such as those living with dementia or who have developmental disabilities require personal care assistance. Kushel questions how existing care programs can be modified to fit with a new model to addressing homelessness.

  • What happens if low-cost housing options are placed in high-cost areas?

Kushel outlines the need to better explore how to design a constellation of care services across communities, which allow service providers to meet the needs of a diverse population of recipients.

Kushel goes on to explain the enormity of the situation she is facing. Currently in San Francisco, a single unit could cost $600,000. The expenses of building all the necessary units, modifying existing services such as Medicaid, and adequately addressing Bay Area homelessness are immense.

As a tremendous a problem as this is, Kushel believes it can be solved. Research is the critical component necessary to arrive at the right solution.

lynne and marc benioff

Corporate Social Responsibility in Action

Every major business has tried to work corporate social responsibility into their branding. Salesforce is taking things quite a bit further.

The idea is simple. Businesses are not only responsible to shareholders, but also to their employees, communities, and the general public. Benioff is the rare, altruistic business maverick who lives and breathes corporate social responsibility. For Benioff, being a good, respectful neighbor is not something to do when the cameras are watching. He has a long history of this kind of thing.

In 2018, he donated $11.5 million to the University of California at San Francisco. He also donated $6.1 million to help secure a lease for the Bristol Hotel, which is now part of a low-cost housing project known as the Bristol House.

Since 2005, the Benioffs have donated more than $357 million to the University of California. Last year, Benioff helped raise more than $100 million to support the Tipping Point Community, another low-cost housing initiative. He and his wife also donated $11.5 million to Hamilton Families, a Bay Area nonprofit that helps to move people off the street and into long-term, stable housing. The Benioffs also donated more than $50 million to San Francisco and Oakland school districts in the last five years.

Salesforce has been a leader in offering its services to nonprofit organizations.

The company has made clear efforts to give back to the community and be a strong advocate of corporate social responsibility.

Both Salesforce and Benioff have been vocal about the direction they would like to see Silicon Valley’s tech giants go in. Many of his fellow tech leaders, notably Jack Dorsey of Twitter and Marc Zuckerberg of Facebook, publicly disagree.

Nonetheless, the evidence continues to mount. Benioff is a Bay Area business leader and pillar of his community. Together, he and his wife, Lynne, have set an amazing example.

For those who are passionate about ending homelessness in the United States, it’s time to celebrate. Not because the story is over and the game is won, but because we’ve reached an unmistakable and exciting moment.

A Victory and a Moment to Celebrate

When I was completing my Social Work Master’s Degree, my professor stressed the need to celebrate moments like this. I will never forget the clear conviction in Dr. Suzy Comerford’s voice as she told me the importance of acknowledging victories in life.

While far from complete, the fact a prominent business leader made this generous donation to end homelessness is a victory. Thanks to the passion, resources, and tenacity of Lynne and Marc Benioff, lives will be impacted around the world.

This is a shining example of true philanthropy. Individuals, families, and organizations across the United States are working every day to help make our country better.

America is without a doubt one of the greatest nations on the planet. While we still have much to do, moments like this remind me of how far we have come.

As the storms of life rage around you, don’t forget to stop and celebrate the victories of life.

Thank you to Lynne and Marc Benioff for giving me one more reason to be grateful and reverent. Together, we are helping to end homelessness!

John Heinz

John Heinz


John Heinz is a masters level social worker, educator and writer who helps businesses to remember the communities they serve.

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