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« The Next Soros? The Pierre Omidyar Ukraine Connection | Main | This Is Silicon Valley's Favorite Ed Reform Group »
Saturday
Feb222014

How and When Will WhatsApp Founders Jan Koum and Brian Acton Give Away Their Billions?

Okay, notice I've asked how and when these two newly minted billionaires will give away their fortunes, not whether. Why's that? Because a person can't actually spend $6.8 billion, which is what Koum netted when Facebook acquired WhatsApp last week, or even $3.8 billion, which is Brian Acton's cut. 

Unless it evaporates in the stock market or is squandered on poor investments, most of the money will eventually go to philanthropy because there's not a lot of other places where it can go. (See my related post on instant tech fortunes and the rise of the living mega donor.)

So what does the philanthropic future hold for these two guys? 

That's hard to say, since neither has much of a track record of either political or nonprofit involvements. Neither man has ever made a contribution to a national or state candidate or political party, and the only nonprofit either has been involved in that I can see is that Koum was a founding member of Jews For Entrepreneurship, a non-profit organization in the Bay Area which provides networking opportunities for Jewish high-tech entrepreneurs.

In short, Koum and Acton seem like a lot of techies who've spent their lives burrowed deeply in their work, without many larger civic attachments. On other hand, we could name any number of tech leaders who managed to figure out the philanthropy game pretty fast. See our Tech Philanthropy guide, with profiles of dozens of tech leaders and how they are giving away their fortunes.

So if we had to guess, where might these guys focus their eventual philanthropy? And when might they start giving?

Koum has an interesting backstory. His family fled an anti-semitic climate in Ukraine and later lived on foodstamps. Given his work with JFE, I'd peg him for future giving to Jewish causes. And, given his hardscrabble early years, I'd bet he'll be big into educational opportunity—maybe scholarships. 

Backing a more open immigration policy would seem like a no-brainer cause for Koum, who is just the latest example of how much immigrants can contribute to the United States.

You never know how an impoverished past plays out with a billionaire. Some see their personal story as evidence that anyone can make it if they try, leading to libertarian or conservative involvements. Others learn the lesson that the safety net and education is all-important, and lean more liberal. Given the fact that Koum and his mother literally survived on foodstamps, you'd imagine that he gets the importance of government, and that will be reflected in his giving. But you never know. Those who leave former communist societies often have an intense antipathy to big government.

As for Brian Acton, we can't say. The dossier on him is pretty thin. 

But here's a final thought: Apparently, Koum spent a lot of time with Zuckerberg to make this deal, and if that relationship is close, Zuckerberg could well have influence in guiding Koum toward philanthropy. Zuckerberg has been unusual in his early embrace of major philanthropy. If he pushes that value to his two new billionaire colleagues, that could lead them to start giving sooner rather than later. 

One thing is for sure: Koum and Acton would be wise to figure out an initial philanthropic game plan right now, before massive tax hits come their way. Will we see a Jan Koum Foundation emerging before the end of the year? Or a Brian Acton Charitable Trust? Maybe not. But big donor-advised funds at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation would be easy steps. The smart thing to do is shelter money now and figure out how to give it away later. 

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