The emerging philanthropy of Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan is one of the most interesting stories we're following right now. Why? Because of the scale of resources in play, for starters. After big jumps in the value of Facebook's stock, Zuckerberg is now worth around $34 billion. And after two big gifts of such stock to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, he and Chan now command a donor-advised fund that likely has assets over $2 billion.
Zuckerberg's visibility and influence is another reason his giving is a big story. Lots of eyes are on Zuckerberg, who is still only thirty, including those of other rich techies. And we've already seen signs that Zuckerberg's approach to giving—start early, and go big—is having sway in Silicon Valley and beyond.
The couple are clearly still figuring out their priorities, beyond their obvious interest in education, where they've made their biggest gives. When they finally lock down on their priorities, that could have big implications for whatever sector they target.
All of which leads us to the latest chapter of the Zuckerberg/Chan philanthropy story: Their pledge of $25 million to the Centers for Disease Control Foundation to help combat Ebola.
We weren't expecting the couple to jump into global health, and the move has gotten us thinking about what really drives the couple's philanthropy.
Because Priscilla is something of a black box, keeping a low profile, this article digs into Zuckerberg's possible motives and approach to giving. But make no mistake: Philanthropy is a joint endeavor in the Zuckerberg/Chan household.
Zuckerberg sees himself as a philanthropic leader
As the largest recent success story in the tech industry, and one of the world’s youngest billionaires, a lot of people look to Zuckerberg as a role model. And I’m not talking just about kids who dream of being wildly successful tech entrepreneurs. I’m also talking about, as I mentioned, those who have already become wildly successful and want to give back, but aren’t necessarily sure where to start.
Following the lead of Zuckerberg and others, many in the new generation of tech leaders are not wasting any time getting started on their philanthropy. Two recent cases in point: Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe’s $31 million gift to the computer science department at the University of Maryland, and the massive donor-advised fund that was just created by GoPro founders Nicholas and Jill Woodman, which just happens to be run by the same foundation that administers Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s charitable fund.
The funny thing about being a leader is that, even if you didn't choose this role, you still get the attendant responsibilities. While Zuckerberg didn't issue any call to arms to other philanthropists regarding Ebola, our bet is that he's hoping that his move will draw more big donors to the causes, thus magnifying the impact of the gift. So far, Bill Gates and Paul Allen are the only two other donors from the tech world who have put up big money to fight the epidemic.
He’s drawn to the big play
Maybe being a young techie has something to do with it, but Zuckerberg tends to think big when it comes to his philanthropy. His first two major forays into the public square—the $100 million he donated to improve education in Newark, New Jersey, and the creation of FWD.us to push immigration reform—aimed to tackle large and complex issues in a rather ambitious fashion.
With the Newark gift, he didn’t so much focus on funding programs for students and teachers, but rather signed on to a sweeping effort to try to create a new model for urban education. On immigration, he didn't back pick-and-shovel efforts to expand H-1B visas or provide services to undocumented immigrants; he's tried to create one of the leading immigration reform advocacy groups in the United States.
He looks for inflection points
Tech entrepreneurs are obsessed with timing. Jump into something too late, and the revolution has already begun without you. Jump in too early, and there's no wave to catch. So it's no surprise that Zuckerberg's directed his philanthropy toward issues at key inflection points. The Newark gift came amid a rare alignment of stars in New Jersey behind reforming the state's biggest urban school district; the immigration push happened just as the issue was being teed up for a Beltway slugfest.
On Ebola, Zuckerberg's timing is actually a bit off, and Gates and Allen have been on the case for many weeks now. Still, the gift comes at what Zuckerberg has called "a critical turning point." As he wrote in a Facebook post about the gift: "We need to get Ebola under control in the near term so that it doesn't spread further and become a long-term global health crisis that we end up fighting for decades at large scale, like HIV or polio. We believe our grant is the quickest way to empower the CDC and the experts in this field to prevent this outcome.”
The goal here is no less ambitious than his goals in education and immigration, and seeks a long-term solution, namely keeping Ebola in a contained box. Clearly, he believes that his resources can help turn the tide against the disease.
He’s becoming more deliberate
By many accounts, the Zuckerberg-backed effort to help remake Newark’s educational system was a complete disaster, one with good intentions, but no real plan. His immigration reform group may be faring slightly better, but has also received mixed reviews. Some say the group has helped elect more pro-reform members of Congress, while others point to unconventional campaigns that have hindered reform advocates’ ability to build a pro-reform coalition big enough to pass meaningful legislation. Either way, with Congress stalled out, the group’s president, Joe Green, has said the group is “down, but not out.”
When Zuckerberg decided he wanted to do something about Ebola, however, he didn’t try to create his own organization, or blindly throw money at the problem. He offered his support to one of the top organizations in the fight. The other major difference here is that his donation should have more of an immediate impact, with more easily measurable results.
The big gift earlier this year to boost Bay Area schools also shows that Zuckerberg isn't afraid to get back on the horse after a rough ride. Many donors might have run screaming from ed reform after the Newark experience, remembering that, oh right, education is a crazily complex issue that has famously defeated (and humiliated) a long string of philanthropists. Instead, the new education give was even bigger than the Newark pledge.
It's personal, too
Zuckerberg has said that his interest in immigration reform was spurred by a student he met teaching a class on entrepreneurship who was concerned he wouldn’t be able to go to college because he was undocumented. His initial foray into education was partly driven by an admiration for Newark’s former Mayor Corey Booker.
On Ebola, Priscilla Chan has said that she and Zuckerberg had been thinking for a few weeks about making a gift. But the decision came after Zuckerberg made a trip to India and was struck by the lack of public health resources in that country's poor and rural areas. He called Chan to suggest they go big.
Priscilla Is Key
While we've focused here on Zuckerberg's thinking, we can't stress enough that Chan is a full partner in the couple's philanthropy, and is probably taking the lead in some areas. That seemed to be the case when the couple made a $5 million gift earlier this year to meet the health needs of low-income residents in Silicon Valley; Priscilla cited her first-hand experience of these challenges as a reason for the gift.
Ebola is another case in which Chan's insights have shaped decisions. She's a doctor, after all, and also the person who's most engaged with the real world of needy people. In an interview with Marketplace, Chan had this to say about the gift:
As a pediatrician, [my] training is in preventing disease and keeping children healthy....I understand how important it is to act now to keep Ebola from being a massive problem that affects the lives of many, and the importance of prevention and early intervention.
So where's all this leading? We don't know, and our bet is that Zuckerberg and Chan don't either. What we do know is that the couple's philanthropic range is growing, and so is their infrastructure for giving, with at least four staffers now on the payroll at their quasi-foundation, Startup:Education.
Judging by the trajectory of other big donors, our bet is that Zuckerberg and Chan keep bolstering their giving capacity by bringing in more help, with education remaining their primary focus, but healthcare emerging as a big secondary interest.
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