The Meaning of Mark Zuckerberg’s Philanthropy

zuckerberg Once upon a time, financially successful people spent the bulk of their lives working and then, after they retired, they would “give back” some of what they had earned in the form of philanthropy. Their largest philanthropic gifts were often made upon their death.

Today, at least for the uber-successful, philanthropy is something you do now.

On the Oprah Winfrey show today, 26-year-old, billionaire Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced that he would be giving $100 million to the Newark public school system. According to the Wall Street Journal, the gift represented an intentional decision by Zuckerberg to not wait until the end of his career to focus on philanthropy.

Once upon a time, massive donations made by the wealthy were directed to organization that they had a personal connection with such as their alma mater. Since the super wealthy tend to have personal connections with institutions in education, health care and the arts rather than direct social service organizations, the former received the bulk of major gifts.

Today, at least for the uber-successful, the focus of philanthropy is moving towards donations that can make the most difference.

The size of Zuckerberg’s gift, almost certainly making him the youngest person ever  to donate $100 million, will make the headlines, but the real news is that the donation is going to Newark’s public school system which Zuckerberg never attended. Instead, the selection of Newark reflects Zuckerberg’s belief that it represents a prime opportunity to make a big difference.

Speaking to TechCrunch, Zuckerberg said:

“So we did all this research and we figured it would be a while until we found a good candidate but it turns out that Newark, New Jersey is a good candidate for a lot of reasons. So the main reason is that the leaders there are really good. So there’s this guy, Cory Booker, who’s the mayor and who’s a Democrat and the governor, Chris Christie in New Jersey is a Republican. They’re both really good leaders who are rising stars in their respective parties. And just very well respected nationally, have a lot of political capital that they can spend on trying to make the reforms, the changes that are painful but necessary to get this stuff done. And at the same time, Newark is one of the lowest performing school districts in the country right now.

What the real goal is here – is just to show that it’s working. I mean, I don’t have much of a connection to Newark. I grew up in New York, right outside the city. So Newark is just close by and it’s going to – I hope that this helps the 45,000 students who go to school there. But the long-term goal would be to make Newark into a symbol that you can do this. So that way, a lot of the results can get replicated in other places.”

In other words, Zuckerberg’s gift is driven by a desire to have maximum impact on an issue that he cares about.

Zuckerberg isn’t an isolated example. There is no doubt in my mind that his gift is a direct result of Bill Gates’ decision to leave Microsoft before age 50 to pursue philanthropy and the broader Giving Pledge effort of Gates and Warren Buffett. From the Giving Pledge to the billion dollars given by every day Americans in the wake of Haiti, philanthropy with a focus on impact is rushing into the mainstream.

These two shifts, the move to giving while living and giving for impact, are monumental. If this trend continues, it will transform philanthropy for the better.

Click here to read The Meaning of the Gates/Buffett Giving Pledge.


  1. “In other words, Zuckerberg’s gift is driven by a desire to have maximum impact on an issue that he cares about.”

    An issue that he cares about… Newark schools, or his public image? Maybe I’m just too cynical for my own good, but I find the timing of this donation coming the exact same day as the New York premiere of the movie which makes him out to be a selfish jerk of the highest order to be… curious (nicer than spurious).

    Ignoring that, I agree that the move towards giving while living and giving for real impact is a good thing. Hopefully, he’ll prove cynics like me wrong and demonstrate a life of philanthropy, which would be an awesome example showing other young people that there’s no need to wait to give.

    • It seems like an awfully expensive PR move. $100 million could buy a lot of PR if he had just done it directly. According to Oprah, she had to talk him into not making the gift anonymously and then had him delay the announcement until the fall TV season started.

      • It’s just a little more than 1% of what he’s worth, and I don’t think $100 million could buy as much PR impact as one huge, unexpected charitable contribution.

        That said, I’m intrigued now, because an article I read on Daily Beast (I have no link, apologies) stated that “insiders” said he actually wanted to delay the timing of the gift even later, but was pressured by Cory Booker and Chris Christie to do it now because this timing complemented other Newark/NJ announcements regarding schools & education. The world of big philanthropy is like politics! Fascinating.

        But, like I said, I hope he proves me wrong and that this will be an example for other young would-be philanthropists.

        • Kevin Bolduc says:

          It’s so hard to know what to think about a first gift, especially one of this magnitude. If one is inclined to think that Zuckerberg is in need of PR, perhaps his stated “motivation” is exactly what a PR firm would tell him to say to sound like a great philanthropist. Or what he said could be the absolute truth.

          Let’s see how he follows up on this gift and what comes next in his philanthropy. Then maybe we’ll have a sense of what his philosophy of philanthropy really is. For now, this is an exciting big bet on the potential to create significant change and we can all agree to hope that it’s a big and a successful bet.

          • Kevin, I do tend to take people at face value. So you may certainly be right that the reasons being presented are not really Zuckerberg’s motivations, but those cooked up by a PR firm. That’s what people said about Buffett and Gates as well and plenty of people still believe that Buffett & Gates philanthropy is really a secret plan and self serving in some way.

            But here’s an interesting thought exercise. If PR firms think that the way to get good PR is to present the wealthy as interested in giving while living and giving for impact, isn’t that itself a validation of the trend? If they are trying to present the best possible version of their client, isn’t it interesting that today that means having an impact focus and not just giving to your alma matter? It is like the question of whether life imitate art or if it is the other way around. Does it matter? Isn’t it all still real?

        • Kevin Bolduc says:

          Sean – I think we’re actually in pretty close agreement. Does his motivation really even matter if it was a smart bet? Whether life is imitating art, art imitating life, or whether he’s just faking it until he actually becomes inherently strategic, it’s all still a very real and generous gift that we can hope creates tremendous impact as well.

  2. It’s nice to see Zuckerberg showing some Philanthropy after making news in Forbes. I know the so-called Facebook movie will portray him as a squandering geek when Facebook began. Whether it’s for PR to restore his reputation or not, it is still a $100 million donation to Newarks failed school system.

  3. Steve Viederman says:

    Sean, there is a bit of elitism in your remark, “Today, at least for the uber-successful, the focus of philanthropy is moving towards donations that can make the most difference.” Making a difference is not necessarily correlated with the size of the grant but to need of the organizations doing the best work. $100,000 to each of ten community organizers would go a long way toward achieving social and economic justice perhaps, that might make the social setting in which schools operate better able to handle the educational challenges.Size is not all that matters.

    Have a nice weekend. Steve

    • Steve, I didn’t mean that only big gifts have impact. I meant that there seems to be evidence that uber wealthy donors are shifting towards giving for impact. I also think we see indications that this shift is true across income levels. But Zuckerberg only validates the trend among the very wealthy.

      That being said, my whole thesis of a Second Great Wave of Philanthropy is about the mainstreaming of philanthropy, not just the ultra wealthy changing how they give.

  4. Julia Rocchi says:

    Hi Sean — I saw a tweet yesterday from a fellow nonprofit person who bemoaned Zuckerberg’s donation, saying it paints “money as both the problem and the solution.” Any response to this? Thanks!

    • Hmm, I think your friend should ask the Newark mayor if the donation is a problem. There’s very little to criticize about the donation unless you simply want to question Zuckerberg’s motives.

      Capital, labor and intellect are combined in various proportion to accomplish everything. Given how much money we spend on education, I agree that money is not the only barrier to success. But that doesn’t mean to donating money to help fix the problems should be “bemoaned”.

  5. Sean,

    I think the fact that Zuckerberg’s gift comes in his lifetime and appears to be motivated by the potential for greater impact is only part of the story. The other side of it, which you allude to in your post, is that this is one of the largest gifts to directly benefit poor people. Large gifts to universities and arts organizations can certainly be made with vulnerable populations in mind as well. The difference is is that Zuckerberg is directly supporting the community in which he wants to have impact.

    I’m interested in your thoughts on the transparency of the gift. It strikes me that we don’t know very much about how Zuckerberg selected Newark. In interviews he has mentioned that he did research and that he is impressed with both Mayor Booker and Governor Chrisie but I wonder if he consulted any donor with experience in this area.


    • Interesting point about transparency, Aaron. Especially given all the privacy issues swirling around Facebook. The New York Times said today that he consulted with his #2 at Facebook (who set up and spoke with Bloomberg, Wendy Kopp, Eli Broad and others.

      It will be interesting to see how this gift (which is actually the formation of a foundation) will evolve.