Twitter Getting $22 Mil Tax Break for Helping Charities TweetS

When Twitter, one of San Francisco's flagship startups, threatened to ditch the city over tax complaints a couple years back, the city caved. Twitter received a giant break, in exchange for a promise to help the struggling neighborhood around its office. Did it? Sort of.

Even as San Francisco faced a blighted budget and an increasing poverty crisis, it was willing to let Twitter legally shirk its payroll tax responsibility, if it did the following:

Twitter Getting $22 Mil Tax Break for Helping Charities TweetS

Many of those are vague enough to skirt with ease, and it seems like Twitter has, Justine Sherrock at BuzzFeed points out. In the progress report below, Twitter mentions how (and to what extent) it's satisfied the above community goals. It's done some concrete, cash-on-the-table good:

  • Two paid days off for volunteering per employee
  • $60,000 per year given to local charities
  • 40 computers donated to local students
  • 30+ hours pro bono legal work

There have also been some less significant gestures, like four Twitter employees joining the boards of local charities (who know that entails?) and the creation of this inspirational website.

Some efforts are totally misleading: Twitter vowed to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars at "local" businesses for things like catering. It claims it did—because it sources food for its delicious cafeteria from farms up to 50 miles away. I don't think that's what San Francisco had in mind.

Finally, a large—some might say unreasonably so!—portion of Twitter's community service campaign has been self-serving. The company says it's "donated" $55,000 in promoted tweets to local non-profits, and sent its staff to train local charities... in the most effective use of Twitter. Yes, promoted tweets are free advertising for a good cause. And yes, "training" these groups with "recommendations on how to make social media more integral to a group's success" is potentially helpful, if they don't already know how to use Twitter.

But is spreading the use of your company's product really charitable? This isn't like Aquafina handing out free bottled water—it's in Twitter's interest to get entities, non-profit or otherwise, hooked on Twitter. As opposed to, say, Facebook. Sherrock notes some of the companies that received gratis promoted tweets only netted 30 new followers, or 27 replies—would these same groups rather taken a few thousand dollars worth of Twitter advertising, or just a few thousand dollars? It costs Twitter a hell of a lot less to get everyone high on its own supply instead of cutting a check.

Most importantly: is this a fair swap for not having to pay the same taxes as everyone else? Why is Twitter different?

I've reached out to Twitter's press office and its San Francisco community liason, Jenna Sampson, and have yet to hear back.