Four Things to Know About Priscilla Chan, and One Prediction

Facebook's earnings are up, and so is its stock. As a result, Mark Zuckerberg is a lot richer than he was at this time last year, now with a fortune of $26 billion. Our bet is that some of the new money sloshing around will soon find its way to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation—on top of the two huge grants that Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan have already made to SVCF in the past two years. 

It's fair to say that this young couple is likely to emerge as among the most generous philanthropists of our time. And if history is any indicator, Priscilla Chan will become a major figure in the philanthropic world—even if that isn't her plan. Like it or not, fortunes of this size impose intense responsibilities. (Unless you're Jacqueline Mars, say, and your passions lie in the equestrian realm.) 

So what do we know about Chan? How has she shaped the couple's giving so far? And how's she going to shape it going forward?

We've already written a profile of Chan here and also named her one of the 15 most powerful women in philanthropy earlier this year. We've covered the big gifts made by the Zuckerbergs, but we thought it'd be useful to pull things together in a quick rundown.

Here are four things we know about Priscilla Chan and philanthropy:

First, we know she cares about other people's well-being. That may seem like a trite point—I mean we all care, right?—but actually it's significant. Plenty of billionaires or their spouses, like a lot of people, are just too wrapped up in their own lives to have much energy left over for the problems of others. But Chan is a pediatrician who works with children and cares for a living. 

That compassion sparked the Organ Donation initiative that Facebook started in 2012. Chan was then working her way through med school, on her way to becoming a pediatrician, and she would bring home stories from her work day. “Our dinner conversations are often about Facebook and the kids that she’s meeting,” Zuckerberg told Good Morning America in 2012. The stories about kids “getting sicker as they don’t have the organ that they need” sparked Zuckerberg’s conscience. Now, Facebook users can sign up on their state’s organ donation registry with the click of a button.

Second, Chan knows first-hand just how badly frayed America's social safety net is when it comes to healthcare. Silicon Valley, where she works, has a huge low-income population, and many of these people don't have adequate health coverage. That reality helped shape the first big gift that Chan and Zuckerberg made through their new fund at SVCF: $5 million to help build a new clinic for the Ravenswood Family Health center, which serves 11,000 mostly low-income patients each year. "I have seen great need for high quality, comprehensive health care and also the positive impact care can make on the entire family,” Chan said in explaining the gift. 

Third, Chan is very much an equal partner in the couple's philanthropy, from what we can tell. Zuckerberg's $100 million gift in 2010 was largely his own deal, but it might as well have happened in another lifetime. Now the couple is married and it's a new era of true family philanthropy. Of course, none of this is very surprising to experts on women in philanthropy. A 2011 report by the Women's Philanthropy Institute at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy found that nearly all high-net-worth couples who are engaged in philanthropy make their giving decisions jointly. That finding certainly tracks with our reporting on a wide array of other wealthy couples. Also, as a practical matter, Priscilla is a co-director of the new fund that the couple has set up at SVCF. 

But here's the fourth thing to know about Priscilla Chan: She loves her day job and has shown no particular interest in becoming someone like Melinda Gates or Laura Arnold or Jean Case or Joan Weill—women with wealthy spouses who bag their earlier careers to become full-time philanthropic heavyweights. Chan has stayed largely out of the spotlight, doing what she did before she and Mark had to deal with one of the world's largest fortunes. 

But here's a prediction: Chan won't keep practicing medicine for that many more years. Why? Because it just doesn't make sense if she wants to truly help people and has already set large-scale family philanthropy into motion. What makes a lot more sense is to focus early, laser-like attention on effective giving.

Lots of people can be good pediatricians. How many get to give away billions of dollars?