Playing the Long Game: Six Takeaways From Chan and Zuck's Big New Thing

This keeps getting more interesting.

I’m talking about what happens when two idealistic and ambitious millennials decide to devote tens of billions of dollars to making the world a better place.

It almost sounds like a fantasy project—more akin to the augmented reality that Facebook is working on than traditional philanthropy.

What would you do with a $55 billion fortune and a five- or six-decade window to work with over the rest of your life? What will Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg do with it?

Yesterday, we got more answers to that last question when the couple unveiled an initial $3 billion commitment over the next decade to finance a new push to “cure, prevent or manage all diseases by the end of the century.”

You heard that right: Zuck and Chan want to vanquish humanity’s greatest foes, and within the next 84 years—by the time, basically, that their baby daughter Max is an old woman.

It’s hard to think of any philanthropists who’ve ever embraced so grandiose a goal, the exception being Andrew Carnegie, who, about a century ago, set out to eliminate war—the second greatest scourge of human existence.

Carnegie, as we all know, didn’t get so far. How are Chan and Zuckerberg likely to do with this effort?

I’ll get to that question in due time, but first let’s look at six takeaways of yesterday’s announcement, broadcast on Facebook Live.

1. Chan and Zuck Know How to Multi-Task

Chan and Zuckerberg have mainly been known so far for their education giving. Zuck’s first big give in 2010 was to improve Newark’s schools, and the couple’s second biggest give after that was to improve schools in the Bay Area. The first entity they set up to manage their giving was called Startup:Education, and Priscilla has even created her own school in East Palo Alto.

But last year, when Chan and Zuck pledged 99 percent of their fortune to “advancing human potential and promoting equality,” it was clear that they were thinking in more sweeping terms about their philanthropy. The only question was how, exactly, this would play out. Now, a key piece of the picture has come into sharp focus: Like two of the greatest titans of philanthropy before them, John D. Rockefeller and Bill and Melinda Gates, the couple has set their sights on improving humanity’s lot at the most elementary level—namely, keeping people alive longer and in better health.

In the next year, look for the agenda to broaden even further as Chan and Zuck drill into the equality side of their mission. Some reports, for instance, have suggested they might take on housing—an area where, as we often write, there’s lot of room for new donors and ideas.

2. Boldness Is Back in a Big Way

It’s hardly new for mega-donors to think in grandiose terms. Many of the top givers of the 20th Century, starting with Carnegie and Rockefeller, set hugely ambitious goals. But then, during the last half of that century, there was a bit of a lull as the institutionalized foundation became the main face of American philanthropy. To be sure, these entities set some big goals themselves, but more often treaded cautiously—or "more realistically," you might say, than brash living donors. In recent years, though, more living donors and larger sums are coming to the table—the Gates Foundation’s endowment is nearly four times that of Ford’s. The bar of philanthropy has been raised more than once, at times—as we saw yesterday—in a nearly Utopian way.

While it can be tempting to view Bill Gates as a technocratic donor presiding over a large bureaucratic foundation, it’s important to remember how grandiose his and Melinda’s vision has been from the start, especially in the global health arena. In turn, the Gateses have been a model for other new donors who have followed, and especially for Zuckerberg and Chan—who are now pushing the envelope of possibility even further.

It’s not surprising that tech donors have led the way in introducing a new round of big thinking to philanthropy. Ideas are the main currency of their industry, with gargantuan rewards and market dominance going to innovators who come up with the next big thing. Regardless of what you may think of this industry and its various questionable practices (e.g., tax avoidance), the influence on philanthropy of donors from this sector is becoming ever more profound.

3. Youth is an Advantage in Playing the Long Game

Beyond Zuckerberg and Chan, we’ve written a lot at IP about other new and young (or youngish) donors coming onto the scene, such as Dustin Moskovitz, Sean Parker and John and Laura Arnold. It’s surely no coincidence these donors are also some of the most ambitious—with one reason being that they can think in a more tangible way about solving problems over many decades given their life expectancy. A half-century from now, Chan and Zuck will be in their early 80s. That’s a very long runway to work with as philanthropists, and rather ahistorical, too. Never before have so many young people amassed such large fortunes, and never before have so many business leaders turned to large-scale giving while still in their career primes. In a more typical past model of philanthropy, first you made your money and later you gave it away, more in the twilight of life. In contrast, Zuck made his first $100 million give before Facebook even went public.

4. Bill Gates is a Surprisingly Good Sport

One of the unexpected parts of yesterday’s announcement was that Bill Gates emerged near the end of the presentation to praise Chan and Zuckerberg’s new initiative. Yet, in doing so, he couldn’t suppress a small chuckle as he repeated out loud their goal of taming all diseases. After all, nobody knows better than Gates what a wildly ambitious hope this really is. The Gates Foundation has thrown many billions of dollars at just a handful of diseases for over 15 years, hitting one frustrating roadblock after another along the way. Now, along come Zuck and Chan—who, by the way, don’t have as much money as the Gateses—to set a far more difficult goal of getting the upper hand against every disease.

“Good luck with that,” Bill might have said. Or maybe: “Come on, kids, just pick one or two to get started.” Instead, there he was on Facebook Live, giving his approval to Chan and Zuck’s bid to go after the whole enchilada. Good for Gates not to play the crotchety veteran telling the greenhorns why they will fail. It’s a reminder that, at heart, Gates remains something of a utopian thinker himself. It’s also an indication of just how much respect that Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan have won over time as hardworking emerging philanthropists.   

5. Newark is Ever Further in the Rearview Mirror

Remember when Mark Zuckerberg was being pilloried for his missteps in backing a controversial school reform push in Newark? Yeah, me neither. More and more, that’s yesterday’s news, and the storyline about the Facebook co-founder’s philanthropy has moved on. Zuck learned a lot from that experience, and he and Priscilla have repeatedly vowed to listen carefully and get buy-in from key stakeholders for their education giving.

The emergence of Chan as an equal co-partner in giving is a big part of the shift in narrative. We’re no longer talking about some pipsqueak techie mucking around with big donations; now, at his side, is a daughter of immigrants whose backstory very much epitomizes the struggles of a diverse working class America.  

6. Priscilla is the Real Deal  

Maybe the most striking thing about yesterday’s announcement was when Priscilla Chan kicked things off by talking about her and Mark’s larger goals, along with her own motivations as a philanthropist. These are details people need to know as they ponder Chan/Zuckerberg giving—which some critics have suggested feels like an oligarchical enterprise. Chan’s parents came to the U.S. as Vietnamese-Chinese immigrants and worked long hours to support their family. At Harvard, she tutored low-income income kids for all four years, and then set out to make a difference in the world by becoming a pediatrician, where she learned even more about the struggles of people of very modest means. The school Chan created is designed to help disadvantaged students succeed using a wide array of services to address their needs both in and outside the classroom.

In short, Priscilla Chan is exactly the kind of person you want giving away a $55 billion fortune, assuming she and Mark can get the expert help to do so properly. And yesterday’s announcement was reassuring on that score, too, as Zuckerberg introduced the people they’ve found to help them wage war on disease, starting with Dr. Cori Bargmann, a top neuroscientist.

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So is this effort actually going to work? Obviously, it’s too early to say, and if we were feeling crotchety ourselves, we might talk about how crowded biomedical research is getting these days, and the risk of duplication in this new effort. After all, we already have the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Broad Institute, as well as a growing array of efforts focused on neuroscience and the brain, and a bunch of large cancer initiatives. Oh, and did I mention that the NIH still pumps out $30 billion in grants every year—10 times more annually than what Chan and Zuckerberg plan to spend over a decade?

But why don’t we leave those kinds of questions for another article. The bigger point, here, as I said, is that Chan/Zuckerberg philanthropy keeps getting more interesting. And there’s plenty more to come.