My feeling is Mark Zuckerberg was fairly burned by his experience in donating $100 million to Newark's public schools, particularly with the several million Newark officials quickly allocated to a top flight NYC consulting firm (heavily staffed by Harvard MBAs by the way) who decided how to spend his money. A natural reaction on his part was to have greater input and control over his giving in the future. I don't have a problem with his harnessing those funds in an LLC. This is what business folks do - manage their money with brilliant acumen. The LLC does not skirt tax laws. Skirting suggests something fishy. The LLC is simply a different financial product. It has a huge advantage over typical charitable foundations in that it isn't bound by the same tax laws which require a charity give away 5% of it's worth each year. This means Zuckerberg can sit on his money until the relevance or urgency of a problem drives a disbursement. This is just smart. And strategic. If Zuckerburg wants more control - and lots of options to leave his stamp - this is understandable.
More importantly, it's too early to jump in and criticize Zuckerburg. It's a head scratcher to me why this should be our first reaction when someone makes a pledge of momentous and epic generosity? Zuckerberg continues to surprise us. Let's give him a chance to unfold. He's way too young, complex, and unknown to be fully understood. His first act as a father was to take paternity leave. This kind of leave is rarely paid for or supported in corporate America. Let's all say thanks for the giant step he took towards legitimizing fathers parenting their newborns and getting paid leave.
Rather than greet Zuckerberg with suspicion, he should be seen for who he is: one of a growing number of newly-minted tech billionaire do-gooders eager to have social impact. I'm okay with this generation of young billionaires swift into their suspenders - but equally swift into giving back. I'd rather see the bulk of their wealth spent on the greater good, than on personal excess, even if their initial forays may be ill-informed, clumsy, or failures like they were In Newark. Give them a learning curve. Over time, it is highly likely that these individuals - unfettered by bureaucracy, red tape and inertia - will drive groundbreaking initiatives that more quickly impact lives. Should our federal and state governments be driving these initiatives or more adequately addressing gaping needs in our schools? Maybe. But let's be realistic. Have they? Will they? Not with the speed, innovation, nimbleness and laser-focus that private entrepreneurs like Zuckerberg can.
I might point out that there is dramatic precedent for how private enterprise can drive, fund and help cure societal ills. One of the most revolutionary breakthroughs in cancer treatment today - the development of the drug Herceptin for breast cancer - was privately funded by Lilly Tartifkoff (a wealthy Hollywood widow whose husband died of cancer) and billionaire Ronald Perelman. Tartikoff reached out to the doctors and researchers at the UCLA medical center who had tried to save her husband's life and said, hey, lets beat this thing together. It's her philanthropy that drove the initial discovery of Herceptin. (Not the National Cancer Institute, not big pharma and not the established medical community.) When the first round of funding ran out, Ron Perelman's Revlon Charity stepped in to foot the bill. Herceptin has turned out to be one of the few cancer game-changers of the last few decades. And organizations like Stand Up to Cancer, have now become an established part of how we rally wealthy individuals to fund scientific research and accelerate ground breaking medical therapies in ways that government can't. And again, impact lives sooner. The point is - we need the Lilly Tartifkoffs and Mark Zuckerbergs of the world.
But I digress. More worrisome than Zuckerberg's new LLC are the philanthropic track record's of billionaires like David and Charles Koch who already donate heavily to higher education and whose giving is ideologically motivated. The Koch brothers donate millions each year to a range of colleges across the US - not to help the disadvantaged, or bestow scholarships, or even to save lives - but to a specific agenda - to drive thinking on public policy, the economy and the role of government. 163 universities currently accept Koch donations - with George Mason University accepting over 8 million. Recently several universities have decided to say no to Koch money - and it's influence. Likewise, George Soros funds a range of educational initiatives attached to his political ideologies. If anyone is feeling the need to criticize philanthropic spending in the educational sphere - you might look at these known philanthrocapitalists before jumping on Zuckerberg who has barely begun to build his legacy.
I'm not saying money and ideology is a bad thing. And if you happen to agree with the Koch brother's political ideologies, I suppose their atttempt to influence young minds is a good thing. However, let's be honest. There are charities - and there are charities. Mark Zuckerberg's first run with charity with the Newark public schools reflected a more pure of heart purpose. Billionaires like the Koch brothers and Soros are out there trying to change the minds and the hearts of young students.
It's also a pretty shallow argument to suggest we should in some way fear Zuckerberg's undue influence, or be warned that his efforts will "enrich the wealthy at the poor's expense." I don't see any evidence of this. Zuckerberg's actions thus far speak for themselves - $100 million to the Newark public schools, $25 million to the CDC to fight Ebola. These are not the actions of someone who wants to subvert public school funding. And just how - specifically - are the poor harmed here? Further, it also sounds a bit conspiracy theory-ish for someone to suggest that Zuckerberg has "military-style education" "enforced" in the charter schools he supports. I mean this just sounds like nonsensical, fiery rhetoric - sorry. Enforced? How so? Military-style? What does this even mean? We don't live in a military or police state. Students in this country are not forced to go to a charter school. It's an option.
As for the expectation that the state department of education can fully step up to plate - lets be honest - educational funding is hampered by myriad laws, regulations and collective bargaining agreements. It's likely that with Zuckerburg's genius for unconventionality and innovation, he will be able to help improve schools and education in ways that state departments of education simply can't.
By almost anyone's standards what Zuckerburg is doing should be lauded as radical and precedent-setting. Zuckerberg is bucking the trend of older magnates and billionaires who wait until old age or death for their foundations to kick in. Inspired by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, he is starting at an incredibly young age so he has time for trial and error, and thoughtfulness in his approach. One year into my graduate training as a social worker in New York City, I was stunned by the poverty, problems and unequal opportunity that pervaded almost every community in which I did my residencies. It's easy to sit in one's comfortable house, in one's comfortable office and pontificate about the danger of hand-outs. How very easy. I spent twelve hour days looking to squeeze out every penny, and every service I could for those desperate for help. I was trying to find a way to be restorative to peoples lives, and more than anything, help them find a path to education, self-sufficiency and a meaningful life. On days when that was too lofty a goal - I settled for making sure their bellies were full. And yeah - to do that - well sometimes, please forgive us - we accepted a hand-out.