Mark Zuckerberg's Philanthropy Comes Into Sharper Focus

Over the past year, the value of Facebook shares has soaredand so has Mark Zuckerberg's net worth. His fortune now stands at $33 billion, making him the 17th richest person in the United States. Zuckerberg isn't just sitting on this wealth, either; he's come to exemplify a new generation of tech leaders who are engaged in large-scale philanthropy sooner rather than later, working with his wife Priscilla Chan to give away substantial sums of money. 

If you don't pay close attention, you'll know about Zuckerberg's $100 million pledge in 2010 to improve public schools in Newark, NJ (an episode we've called "Mark Zuckerberg's Vietnam"). But you probably don't know that last year, Zuck and Chan made an even bigger pledge of $120 million to boost student achievement in Bay Area schools. Or that they gave $5 million to help a health clinic in East Palo Alto serve low-income people. (The couple also stepped forward with a $25 million gift to help contain the Ebola epidemic.) You may also not know that the value of Facebook shares that Zuckerberg and Chan have given to their donor-advised fund at the Silicon Community Foundation are now worth around $2.5 billion, assuming those shares haven't been sold. Which means that, in effect, the couple controls a philanthropic entity that would rank among the top 25 foundations in America. 

Now Zuckerberg and Chan's philanthropy has taken another notable turn with their $75 million gift to San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center, the only public hospital in San Francisco that provides trauma and psychiatric emergency services to city residents.

The gift may be the largest ever to a public hospital in the United States, and it's significant that the couple is putting their money into this type of institution, and to pay for emergency services. We write about plenty of hospital gifts, but often the money is going to places that are already well-heeled. Why is that? Because rich people tend to give to the hospitals where they have been treated, and rich people go to the best hospitals. And the wealthy often give money to hospitals for research into some dread disease that has afflicted them or someone close, and it's the top hospitals that do such research.

In contrast, Zuckerberg and Chan are giving money to the kind of healthcare institution that really needs it these days: a public hospital working to improve basic services for urban residents in an era of where government resources are tight. 

So that's one takeaway from the new gift: Zuckerberg/Chan philanthropy is laser-focused on the truly needy. We haven't yet seen a dime of their money go to universities with giant endowments or elite arts institutions or private schools or advanced research projects. 

The second, and bigger takeaway, is that education and healthcare are emerging as the twin pillars of the couple's philanthropy. That makes sense in several ways. First, education has long been a passion of Zuckerberg's was the focus of his first big move as a philanthropist, with the Newark gift. He's interested enough that he taught a class at a local school in Silicon Valley with mostly low-income kids. The organization that Zuckerberg and Chan have set up to handle their giving is called Startup:Education.

Meanwhile, though, healthcare is Priscilla's core area of interest, as you'd imagine for a woman who is a practicing pediatrician. Chan has seen the problem of unmet healthcare needs in low-income populations firsthand and clearly wants to do something. That was the motive for the gift early last year to the Ravenswood Family Health Center in East Palo Alto, one of the poorest areas of Silicon Valley.  

Now, with this big hospital gift, Zuckerberg and Chan are putting healthcare more on par with the scale of their education giving. In making the clinic gift last year, Chan said she saw these issues working in tandem: "Quality health care and a strong educational system are the key elements of a healthy community.”

On one level, that sounds like an obvious and pedestrian point. Pulling back the lens, though, we see that both the educational and healthcare systems of the U.S. are badly failing to meet the needs of low-income Americans right now. Many schools are underfunded and dysfunctional, while the healthcare system—even with the Affordable Care Act—falls short in multiple ways, particularly when it comes to prevention. 

So if Zuckerberg and Chan really do keep their focus on improving both these systems, they've found the perfect focus for outsized giving that draws on a historic fortune. The next question becomes whether they stay local or start to think in larger, systemic terms. Our bet is that the couple will first focus on local needs, and then will think bigger. 

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