When Mayor Ed Lee met with tech executives at a private lunch in early December to come up with ways for the industry to be a more prominent community partner, a 2-year-old organization purporting to speak for The City’s tech sector was tapped to lead the way.
That group — San Francisco Citizens Initiative for Technology and Innovation, or sf.citi — has hundreds of members and is now looking to boost its profile by charging them an annual fee. But it remains to be seen what exactly sf.citi is and will become — a philanthropic organization funneling tech largess to San Francisco, an exclusive club lobbying for tech or both.
Led by angel investor, Lee campaign contributor and mid-Market Street tax-break backer Ron Conway, sf.citi has been around since 2012. Its board of directors has never formally met but did vote on backing Proposition E, another tax-break measure, according to the group. And now that it’s seeking membership dues from all of its members, it could expand its own influence along with that of Conway.
“To help us support our ever-growing programmatic and policy work we have instituted a $500 year membership fee for existing and future sf.citi member companies,” Conway wrote in an email sent to about 700 member companies in November.
That could bring in $350,000 for sf.citi.
Until now, free membership was offered to small startups as an incentive to join, said sf.citi Managing Director Alex Tourk, who once served in former Mayor Gavin Newsom’s administration. He did not say what the threshold for a small startup was.
In Conway’s email, and on its website, sf.citi touts its philanthropic efforts.
“Our small but diligent staff works everyday with sf.citi member companies to innovate city policy and to ensure the tech sector is giving back to San Francisco,” Conway wrote in the November email.
But sf.citi’s tax forms state one purpose: “Sf.citi develops and promotes key policy programs aimed at making San Francisco a better and more productive place for its members to do business. Sf.citi is a consolidated voice on behalf of its members in promotion of tech sector interests and growth.”
The majority of the group’s spending thus far has been on lobbying, not philanthropy.
The group’s 2012 tax documents show most of its roughly $661,148 — which Tourk said came from contributions from Google, Salesforce.com, Jawbone, AT&T, Tagged and Conway himself — was spent on consulting, administration and polling. In 2012, Proposition E, which shifted much of the business-tax burden away from startups and the like, was part of the group’s efforts.
As for its philanthropic work in 2012, much is made of several initiatives, but nowhere do tax filings show that any money was spent.
That year, sf.citi launched a transit application for Muni managers to monitor the system and communicate in real time, created an app for the Police Department to report remotely from the field, and organized a leadership summit for women and girls, among other activities.
In 2013, according to the Ethics Commission, sf.citi paid Tourk $200,000 to lobby prominent politicians, including Lee, Police Chief Greg Suhr and Planning Department Director John Rahaim.
On its website, sf.citi said that in 2013 it also gave $100,000 for an app, JusticeMobile, to aid police in the field and $25,000 for intern stipends in collaboration with the San Francisco Police Foundation. It also got $35,000 from its members to give to Project Homeless Connect, a one-day event providing services to the homeless that was founded by Tourk and Newsom in 2004.
A look at sf.citi’s finances since it was formed in 2012:
$661,148: Contributions from members
$291,000: Consulting ($181,855 paid to Alex Tourk’s Ground Floor Public Affairs for consulting)
$94,000: Salaries and wages
$36,000: Polling and research
$33,000: Legal fees
$200,000: Lobbying fees Alex Tourk charged sf.citi
$160,000: Sf.citi philanthropic efforts
S.F. Examiner Staff Writer Chris Roberts contributed to this report.