Shopify Inc. CEO Tobi Lutke and his spouse Fiona McKean set out to be quiet philanthropists last year. They established their Thistledown Foundation with a $150-million endowment and plans to fund decarbonization efforts. Last week they pivoted their strategy.
For now, they will dedicate Thistledown’s resources to the fight against the coronavirus by funding research along with efforts to improve domestic supply of personal protective equipment (PPE). They are also doing so publicly, announcing on social media both Thistledown’s existence and its new approach. So far they’ve donated $5-million to Fast Grants, a research-granting body and $1-million to Conquer COVID-19, a volunteer organization that sources and distributes PPE to healthcare workers. They have also funded two projects affiliated with an Ottawa hospital, to see if N95 masks can be decontaminated and reused and to 3D-print face shields. They spoke by videoconference from their Ottawa home with the Globe’s Sean Silcoff. The interview has been edited and condensed.
Tell me about the foundation’s origins and initial approach.
TL: This is something we have been talking about for a long time. We got a small team together to look at the kinds of things that 20 years from now, we would wish we had done 20 years ago. Minimizing future regret drives almost every one of my decisions. [Decarbonization] ended up being the obvious thing to invest our time in partly because climate change is an extremely gnarly issue. Our intention is to go back to this. It is only right now -- for a very brief moment -- the second most important thing we work on.
FM: We had done lots of sprinkling [of donations]. Our preference was to talk -- anonymously, quietly - - to the best thinkers, connect them, make small investments here and there, really get a sense of the space where technology and decarbonization meet. A lot of [our giving] has focused on how we help have a species-level impact. If we can take carbon out of the air in vast quantities, that is a species-level impact. If we can help get coronavirus under control, that is a species-level impact.
Why did you want to do this quietly?
TL: There is an aspect of philanthropy that is just more pure if it is anonymous. I personally feel extremely good about what Shopify is doing in terms of its effect on the world, so I didn’t think I needed philanthropy as a stand-in for a Catholic indulgence kind of thing. It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t want or need credit for it.
FM: This is not a pat-me-on-the-back effort. We actively discourage [publicizing our names as donors]. We didn’t have a website, we didn’t have a Twitter account. When we decided to pivot, we broke all the rules we had originally set for it and said, ‘OK, now we’re doing short term, high impact.’ The one discomfort we had to push through was to say, we have to be loud about it, which is not our nature. It feels strange, but necessary.
TL: Duty overrides comfort.
Tell me about your new thinking and approach.
TL: There is the humanitarian crisis, then there’s an economic crisis, which is the result of a humanitarian crisis. At Shopify, we are helping as much as we can, organizing communities to help local business, even to buy gift cards. At Shopify we want to judge our own response based on answering the question, ‘Have more small businesses globally survived the crisis than otherwise would have?’ Now it’s like, okay, is there still anything [to do] after putting a checkmark next to this? [Fiona and I] can help with the humanitarian crisis. It became clear there are some roles we can play. The government is doing a very, very good job, but outside that it’s very fragmented, and [we realized] it would be a lot easier if we could just raise our hand and put weight behind efforts and get a lot of connective tissue between different camps. This is the reason we uncloaked, so to speak.
FM: We’ve got friends that work in hospitals. For the last three weeks we’ve been doing bits and pieces quietly, here’s a bit of money over here, you run with an idea. I know we’re not the only ones doing this. But it seems every community is trying to figure it all out in their own little bubbles and there’s very little discussion between cities. There has to be a better way. We need a rally-around-the-flag type of response.
TL: Usually it takes months for researchers to receive grants. [Through Fast Grants], we can get money to them in 24 hours. This is the speed by which everything must happen. A lot of pieces of infrastructure in the world are just not working at the speed by which things have to move now. Most of the time, this is good. Things probably shouldn’t work by the precision that derives from a 24-hour turnaround in many cases. But right now we need it. We want Canadian universities and research hospitals to apply for those grants. There’s been a good response in the U.S.; I’m not clear whether that message has reached Canadian researchers. It’s important for them to know.
Are your climate-change-giving initiatives on hold?
FM : The conversations continue, investments are continuing. It’s parallel but it’s muted.
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