For a long time, the way philanthropy worked was simple: Rich people gave their money to museums and churches and opera houses and Harvard. Their names went up on buildings, charities gave them made-up awards, their grandkids went to rehab, the Earth went around the sun.
But philanthropy is changing. Today’s billionaires are less interested in legacy institutions, less obsessed with prestige and perpetuity. Part of this is a function of their age: In 2012, 4 percent of America’s biggest charitable donations were made by people under 50 years old. In 2014, a quarter of them were.
The other factor driving the new philanthropists is how they earned their money in the first place. Last year, six of the 10 largest charitable donations in the United States came from the tech sector, solidifying Silicon Valley’s place as the epicenter of the newer, bigger, disrupty-er philanthropy. There, tech billionaires form “giving circles” to share leads on promising charities, and they hire the same consultants to vet them. They use terms like “hacker philanthropy” and “effective altruism.” These guys—they are mostly guys—believe that they became successful businessmen by upending existing institutions, by scaling simple ideas, by “breaking shit.” And, with few exceptions, that is how they plan to become successful philanthropists, too.
All of this became much more relevant in December, when Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, announced that they were giving 99 percent of their wealth to charity. The total amount they pledged, around $45 billion in Facebook shares at current valuation, exceeds the endowments of the Rockefeller, Ford and Carnegie foundations combined. If Zuckerberg gives away the upper limit of what he announced in December, $1 billion per year for the next three years, he will likely become the world’s second-largest charitable donor after Bill Gates. He is 31 years old.
Zuckerberg’s ability to remake the world in his own image, in his own lifetime, is unprecedented. Andrew Carnegie opened his first library when he was 68, and only managed to get around $5 billion in today’s dollars out the door before he died. John D. Rockefeller, generally considered the most generous industrialist in history, launched his foundation when he was 76, and only gave away around half his fortune. If he wanted to, Zuckerberg could eradicate polio, or de-neglect half a dozen tropical diseases, or fix all the water pipes in Flint, or give $9,000 to every single one of the world’s refugees.
But $45 billion, as a former Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grantee put it, is “a 1,000-pound gorilla.” You don’t give away that much money without changing the places and institutions and people you give it to, sometimes for the worse.
the hard part about social change “is that it doesn’t scale like a social network.”
Nearly every social advance in history has technology somewhere near the center of it—the aqueduct, the steam train, the birth control pill. And whenever you start asking people about the life-altering potential of Mark Elliot Zuckerberg and the tech-based philanthropy he represents, the first words you’re likely to hear are “The Green Revolution.”
In 1975, nearly three out of five people in Asia lived on less than $1 a day. Rains at the wrong time of year meant the difference between starvation and survival. Then, researchers funded by the Ford and Rockefeller foundations created new crops—varieties that grew taller, needed less water and could be planted year-round. Over the next 30 years, this innovation radically improved the lives of hundreds of millions of people. Rice yields spiked by 1,000 percent. Wheat got cheaper, healthier and more abundant. Norman Borlaug, the scientist who developed the new wheat varieties, won the Nobel Prize.
“Technology,” Toyama says, “is the easiest part of any solution.” The hard part is everything that comes afterward. Take car crashes, which kill more people every year than tuberculosis or pulmonary disease. The technology to prevent these deaths—seat belts, motorcycle helmets—is not rocket science. It’s just that no one has figured out how to make it appeal to the people who need it, especially in the developing world, where 90 percent of these deaths occur.
he should acknowledge that the silver-bullet promise of technology only works at changing the world when it’s combined with political will and popular demand. Until he finds a way to engineer those (please don’t), he should focus on the small ways, at the margins, where technology can improve people’s lives, 8 percent at a time.
In 2001, the Gates Foundation gave PATH and the World Health Organization $70 million, 10 years and a simple objective: Develop a vaccine for meningitis A and make it affordable for every single person who needs it.
Marc LaForce headed the team in charge of bringing the vaccine to market. He says it wasn’t just the scale of the Gates donation that mattered, but its duration. In those days, most grants were capped at two or three years, with check-ins every six months. Years of work could be wiped away if a donor decided progress was moving too slowly and pulled out.
“If you want to do something major,” LaForce says, “you need the ability to go two steps forward, then one step back.”
Plus, the Gates team left LaForce alone. Back then, the foundation only employed about a dozen people who worked out of a small office in a residential neighborhood of Seattle. Staffers spent their time making lists of diseases, ranking them by annual fatalities, then calling around to find out which ones were closest to being cured.
“We didn’t need to be specialists,” says Gordon Perkin, the foundation’s first director of global health. “We just needed to know which organizations had the judgment and the infrastructure, and we gave them money.”
This story doesn’t just illustrate the potential of philanthropy. It also demonstrates that how Zuckerberg gives away his money will be just as important as what he gives it to. Because one way to look at his $45 billion is that it’s a lot of money. Another way to look at it is that it’s about what the United States spends on prisons every six months. Or education every four weeks. Or health care every five days. Even at a scale that large, efficiency matters.
The Gates Foundation, as it’s expanded to more than 1,300 employees, has become prone to the same bloat, the same “expert-itis,” as a former grantee calls it. “They hired Ph.D.s in biotech and all they wanted to do was the science that the grantees were doing.”
It’s hard to overstate just how un-Silicon Valley all of this is. “Money is sitting there to make the world a better place, and to dole it out cautiously is antithetical to why it’s there,” says Freada Kapor Klein, a partner at the Kapor Center for Social Impact, a foundation set up by Mitch Kapor, an early investor in Uber and other unicorns.
Zuckerberg shouldn’t be afraid to fail; he should approach philanthropy like a venture capitalist, testing out ideas to scale up later on. Bypassing legacy institutions is what Silicon Valley CEOs are good at, right? All those consultants must strike them as the charity equivalent of taxi medallions.
What Zuckerberg actually announced last December wasn’t a big fat donation to charity. All he did was establish a limited liability company (LLC) and issue a promise that he would use it for good. Much of the reaction at the time was suspicious, speculating that an LLC was a scheme for Zuckerberg to avoid taxes (which isn’t true) or that it would allow him to spend mountains of money without disclosing how he was doing so (which is).
But the corporate approach actually makes a lot of sense. Under the standard philanthropic model, billionaires set up a foundation and give it a huge endowment. Every year, the foundation has to give away at least 5 percent of its total value. Meanwhile, the other 95 percent gets invested in blue chip stocks, hedge funds, foreign currencies, whatever will keep the total endowment the same size. That’s how foundations like Rockefeller and Ford exist in perpetuity: Do-gooders work on one side of the building finding things to donate to, while bankers work on the other side, making sure there’s more to donate next year.
“This idea that philanthropy is only about nonprofits is an outdated model,” says Paula Goldman, a vice president at the Omidyar Network. Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay, was one of the most prominent tech billionaires to merge his investing and grant-making. The foundation still gives donations, but the LLC provides loans and seed capital and invests in things like solar-powered lighting startups, Brazilian test-prep companies and funds that discover Indian entrepreneurs.
Zuckerberg is going even further, giving up on a foundation entirely and putting all of his charity money in a corporate form with no limits on how to spend it. He’s not interested in making his money back. He just wants the flexibility to fund charities or companies or both. Which explains why one of Zuckerberg’s most recent donations wasn’t a donation at all. It was $10 million in seed capital for an education startup called Bridge International Academies, a chain of private elementary schools that wants to deliver education to the world’s poorest students.
The primary appeal of Bridge, especially to investors like Zuckerberg, is the $6 per month it says it charges its students. Operating as a business rather than a charity gives each school an incentive to deliver a decent education and ensures that it’s not going to wither away when development agencies or donors move on to the next idea.
It’s tempting to stop there, to say capitalism perverts philanthropy, full stop, and advise Zuckerberg to just go back and form a foundation. But that’s not right either. One of the most successful private-sector development projects of the last 10 years is M-PESA, the mobile-money system that allows people in Kenya to transfer money via their cell phones. Before the system launched, Kenyans sent money to each other by mail, or by giving envelopes full of cash to bus drivers. Replacing an inefficient, expensive system with a regularized one made everybody better off. That’s not as easy to argue, in the long run, about education.
So, when Zuckerberg hears pitches from companies seeking to solve the world’s problems, he shouldn’t ask them if they have a plan to grow, or an ambition to exist in perpetuity. He should ask himself whether he really wants them to replace the systems that already exist, or simply make them better. Because successful companies don’t just disrupt other companies—they disrupt economies, governments and the people who depend on them. That’s not something that Zuckerberg ever had to worry about, but he has to start.
In 2009, four grad students came up with an audacious idea: Instead of giving poor people the things we think they need—bags of food, stacks of clothing, a pair of goats—what if we gave them enough money to decide for themselves?
They called their charity GiveDirectly, and in 2011 they started doing exactly that. They went to villages in Kenya, found the poorest people living there and transferred $1,000 straight to their cell phones. Later, they came back to ask the villagers what they did with the money. Mostly, it turns out, the villagers spent it on better roofs, better food, paying off debts, starting up businesses. All the stuff the development system used to buy for them—but without any overhead.
In the end, though, Zuckerberg’s greatest impact might be in the model he sets for other philanthropists. The Giving Pledge, which encourages billionaires to donate the majority of their wealth to charity, has attracted more than 142 commitments totaling more than $400 billion. The Founders Pledge has convinced 151 startup executives—most of them look about 19—to devote a portion of their exits to philanthropy. Charitable giving in the United States has nearly quintupled since 1994, and shows no signs of reverting back to opera houses and Harvard.