The new power couple of philanthropy?

Published : 20 June 2014, 05:52 PM
Updated : 20 June 2014, 05:52 PM

Facebook co-founder, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan have recently announced they will donate $120 million to San Francisco's Bay Area schools. Wow! Priscilla in her first television interview (since she wed the billionaire), told NBC television's Savannah Guthrie why they felt compelled to give. To live a life well also means to give to the community, she noted. According to her, they live in an affluent neighbourhood in the Bay area, and few miles down the road there is extreme poverty and people struggling to survive. Knowing that, how can she sleep well at night? She feels "giving back" is a social obligation to her and Mark. The new philanthropist couple of Silicon Valley, Mark and Priscilla, are at the top of the nation's income bracket. Giving to charity improves their self-image, and further signals their elevated social status.

Adopting the U.S. education system is a gallant move orchestrated by their publicist. Publicists make a key strategy to focus on communities where the donors live. That way the donation makes a positive impression of them to the public. The school system is in dire need for cash, and they must upgrade everything to give the deprived kids a decent education. These schools are far behind in the national average. As a daughter of struggling immigrants, Priscilla understands their plight, and wanted to support the community with a huge donation. Outwardly she made a strong case to support her views. Their donated $120 M will go towards different innovative classroom projects to update age old systems from K through 8 grade classes. Such philanthropic act is welcomed by the area's neglected schools. There is nothing sinister about giving back to one's community. Then why so many people including myself are sceptical about their motives?

My views regarding philanthropy in general are not cynical. I believe there is a lot of goodness out there when the fortunate can afford to give away their hard earned money to the needy, and to the deserving. My misgivings are however against the multibillionaires like Dale Carnegie and Mark Zuckerberg. They are consumed by corporate greed, and take up philanthropy as a career move. For them when a charity announcement comes, it appears to be a valuable PR tool. For us it is an opportunity to reflect on a New Age of unprecedented wealth in the hands of a young self-made entrepreneur like Zuckerberg.  It is important to examine whether his newfound wealth is going to help in shaping the future of America in some major way.

Charities that are dealing with finding the fundamental causes of problems are on a noble mission. Those charities are working diligently to solve some of the biggest health care problems, trying to reduce global poverty, or funding research to find cure for cancer. I feel encouraged to see philanthropic work that are result oriented. The Zuckerberg duo giving $120 M in improving the school system is not necessarily a great move. It will solve the immediate problems, but will distract the educators and the school system to rethink a policy that has long term answers. In situations like this a large scale government initiatives to change the conditions of the school system is the best solution. The government might be more likely to focus on the education projects if they weren't being helped by charities with their millions.

Undoubtedly, for Mark and Pricilla, it is a great public relations move to improve their image as "nice people." Starting early on with philanthropy will perhaps release the emotional pressure they are under for having insane amount of money. It appears they want to be the younger Bill and Melinda Gates. Zuckerberg had done similar thing in 2010, when he donated $100 million to revamp the run down public schools of the city of Newark, New Jersey. At the time it was seen by many as an attempt to deflect negative attention from the movie that came out based on his life. His publicist knew that donating large sums of money was good press for him.

In the movie, "The Social Network," Zuckerberg was portrayed as a greedy corporate type who stole the idea of Facebook from his fellow Harvard students.  It has been alleged that the original Facebook idea came from Harvard students Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, identical twins, and their partner Divya Narendra. Zuckerberg sidestepped them, and created the early version of Facebook and made it his own. Therefore, in the mind of the public Zuckerberg still remains a "geek" who is "intellectually corrupt."

To a billionaire like Mark Zuckerberg, donating $100 M every four years to a suffering school district is a small drop in the bucket. It's true that to the suffering students, Zuckerberg's motives don't matter. They are just happy to be in a freshly painted classroom, decked with new tabletop computers, and new textbooks. When the wealthy people donate millions, the public view gets clouded and it prevents them from seeing that Zuckerberg is mostly driven by profit-making motives. It is interesting that in 2013, Zuckerberg paid himself a low salary of only $1 per year to increase the company profit. His motives are not that unselfish after all.

It is ironic that Zuckerberg gives money to schools, whereas he himself is a drop out of Harvard College. When one becomes a billionaire at age twenty-six, one can possibly be arrogant, and say money can be a substitute for real education. From the Priscilla Chan interview, I came away with the feeling that unlike many billionaire philanthropists, they are two-faced, and mostly out there to help themselves into millions more. Then they turn to social projects, which give them a sense of accomplishment. Charity gives them a way out to relieve them of the moral dilemma of having so much money. It possibly eases their conscience due to ethical conflict.

Zuckerberg is not shy about saying that he wants to control the Internet. Facebook investors currently estimate the value of it at about $80 billion, and Zuckerberg's share is about 25%.  So how much does Mark Zuckerberg really make per year? For example, if in the year 2014 Facebook declares a dividend of $500 million, he will earn $125 million. Again the dividend will depend on how Facebook is faring in the marketplace at that time. It is very possible the money that he and his wife will donate to charities will come from corporate funds designated for philanthropy. It will not make a dent into their personal fortune. Philanthropy of most corporate magnates is often hyped, as they usually do not disclose where the funds are coming from.

Zuckerberg's own estimated fortune is $6.9 billion. After having made billions, the wealthy like the Zuckerbergs set out to do good in the name of social justice. Their savvy lawyers set up tax avoiding trusts for the ultra-wealthy families in the form of a foundation. They hire professional staff with great vision who distributes the benefactor's wealth to worthy causes. Zuckerberg's attorneys set up Silicon Valley Community Foundation to do his charitable work. At the end of the day, "it is all about generating positive press for charitable giving," for the world's wealthiest people like Mark and Pricilla Zuckerberg. Such publicity has lots of positive benefits. For example, while passing legislation, the US Congress will take all his charitable initiatives into account, and will reward him through different tax breaks. That's more money for them in the bank.

Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden: "Philanthropy is greatly overrated……the pain in the gut is not sympathy for the underprivileged, but the result of eating a green apple." Giving away the surplus for benevolent purposes should not be held in contempt. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan gave unostentatiously to many charities. By publicizing their lavish philanthropy, corporate tycoons like Mark and Priscilla Zuckerberg, are essentially seeking validation in the public realm. They are ruthless Capitalists, and are obsessed with the desire to immortalize their names in the golden book of pure altruism. Philanthropy organized to ease conscience, and to absolve someone of having too much money, is extremely narcissistic. My neighbour's ten-year-old son, who gives out a portion of his weekly allowance to a homeless person, is far more charitable than Mark and Priscilla Zuckerberg.


Zeenat Khan writes from Maryland, USA