What Mark Zuckerberg’s Big Announcement Tells Us About the New Philanthropy

 

Mark Zuckerberg is now the seventh richest person in the world, with a net worth of $46 billion—which is way up from a year ago, thanks to Facebook's soaring stock (Zuckerberg owns over 20 percent of the company). That same run-up in stock value means that the millions of shares that Zuck has set aside for philanthropy in a donor-advised fund may now be worth over $3 billion, assuming those shares haven’t been sold since they were donated.

Which is to say that at the age of 31, Mark Zuckerberg already controls one of the 25 largest philanthropic stashes in the United States. Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, have also signed the Giving Pledge, promising to give away the bulk of their fortune, with a preference for deploying those resources sooner rather than later. If Facebook’s stock climbs higher in coming decades, this fortune could easily exceed that of either Bill Gates or Warren Buffett.

In short, Mark Zuckerberg is well on his way to becoming one of the biggest philanthropists of the 21st century. So when he makes a major public statement about where his giving is headed, as he did recently, it’s worth paying close attention.

Before looking at the details of that statement, though, here’s a question to ponder: Do tech leaders really believe that “their charitable giving is bolder, bigger and more data-driven than anywhere else,” as an essay in the New York Times recently claimed?

That’s not an easy question to answer, actually, since there are a great many philanthropists from the tech sector doing a great many things. At IP, we’ve researched and written profiles of over 100 such tech philanthropists—and, along the way, sketched a picture of an enormously diverse pool of givers.

While some of these folks do claim to be reinventing philanthropy, and a few really are doing things differently, most neither make such grand claims nor are focused on “disrupting” much of anything. Indeed, I’ve observed before “how uncreative many tech philanthropists are, relative to how they've earned their fortunes. For instance, Jeff Bezos has reinvented commerce with Amazon, but his philanthropy has largely taken the form of traditional gifts for scientific and medical research.”

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Meanwhile, I can think of many funders that aren’t techies—including Wall Street types, next-gen heirs, and some legacy foundations—that are engaged in innovation. Which is to say that it’s simply wrong to imagine a tech vanguard leading the charge to remake philanthropy. Even Sean Parker, who has called for a new kind of "hacker philanthropy," is devoting most of his own giving to one of the oldest causes around, medical research. 

Related: From Tech's Sean Parker, a Strong Manifesto for Philanthropy—With Some Familiar Ideas

Mark Zuckerberg is a great example of what I’m talking about. In his lengthening track record of giving, you’ll find some funding that fits the stereotype of tech newcomers looking to blow things up. Zuckerberg’s early gift to Newark would be an example of that, along with some of his other ed funding. Zuckerberg has also been involved in some major impact investments. But you’ll also find a lot of money going toward conventional recipients—like the $75 million that Zuck and Chan gave to a public hospital in San Francisco or the $25 million they gave to the CDC Foundation to combat Ebola last year.

Like other tech funders, and new philanthropists generally, Zuckerberg mixes conventional giving with other approaches. Which makes a lot of sense: plenty of traditional types of giving work just fine, like writing checks to hospitals that serve poor people. Elsewhere, though, more complex and intractable problems that have long thwarted both government and philanthropy—like low student achievement—suggest the need for urgent experimentation by funders.

Rather than trying to be a breakthrough philanthropist as an end in itself, Zuckerberg—the biggest funder of the younger tech generation—is pretty much a pragmatist. And, as a new statement on his philanthropy makes clear, Zuckerberg’s overall goals are very familiar. Zucker writes that he and Chan have two goals:

First is unlocking human potential. Our children and the whole next generation have the potential to live much better lives than we do today—as long as we make more long-term investments in technology and progress as a society.

We can personalize how we learn. Cure disease. Create clean energy. Give people tools to invent and build businesses. Connect them with people and ideas.

All that sounds like something that Rockefeller or Carnegie might have said—and myriad philanthropists since. The same is true of the couple’s second goal of “promoting equality.”

We live in a time of increasing inequality, and we have a moral responsibility as individuals and as a society to invest more in giving everyone the opportunity to reach their full potential.

We can build stronger communities. Help people stay healthy. Reduce poverty. Promote equal rights. Build understanding across nations.

That all sounds pretty familiar, too, right? While the inequality reference is contemporaneous, all the other points sound like ones that legions of philanthropists have made in the past. In fact, what’s notable about Zuckerberg’s statement—his most comprehensive so far about his giving—is that it doesn’t include a single buzzword about being disruptive or catalytic or thinking in a systemic way.

Even on education, the biggest and edgiest part of his philanthropy, Zuckerberg is following a path that many funders have walked before. He writes:

Our major focus in education is personalized learning. That means supporting the development of schools, teachers and technology. When students can learn at their own pace in a way that's personalized to their learning style, the results are amazing.

While personalized learning in its present form may be relatively new, Zuck’s general impulse, here, is super-familiar in the annals of education philanthropy: to make schools more responsive to the needs of individual students and move away from a more impersonal factory model in which kids often fall through the cracks because they can’t keep up or aren’t adequately challenged.

Whatever you may think of Zuckerberg’s philanthropy, in most ways, it’s not that much different than that of a great many other funders who've gone before him. The same can also be said of most tech leaders.

A notable exception to this point is that Zuckerberg and other younger tech funders seem unlikely to create large bureaucratic organizations to give away their money. As I’ve written before, these entrepreneurs are different from earlier generations, including Bill Gates, who came of age in an era when you needed huge institutions to bring ideas to scale. Many have built companies that have far fewer employees than older tech companies with similar market caps. As well, in an age of the “lean startup,” there is a strong sense in tech circles that smaller institutions are more nimble and able to adapt to change.

So far, Zuckerberg—who is giving away tens of millions of dollars annually—is bearing out the hunch that the new tech funders are inclined to stay lean. His quasi-foundation, Startup:Education, lists just six full-time staff members. Will that number grow in coming years? I'm sure it will. But don't expect Zuckerberg ever to build the kind of institutional colossus that Bill Gates now has. 

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