Social Impact and the Facebook Fortune

In the past few years, ‘impact’ seems to have become the clarion cry of countless well-meaning business and social sector leaders around the world. Suddenly, it seems, making an impact is synonymous with success.

Increasingly, business magazines like Fortune, Entrepreneur and Wired are covering ‘social impact,’ ‘impact investing,’ ‘impact measurement,’ and more. Yet the sheer complexity of some of the social problems leaders are setting out to redress is driving a complicated milieu of approaches. It’s no easier when public perception is out of step.

Facebook-CEO-Mark-Zuckerberg-with-his-wife-Priscilla-Chan-and-their-baby-MaxIn late 2015, Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, and his partner in life Dr. Priscilla Chan, penned a welcome letter to their newborn daughter. In it, they committed to give 99% of their wealth—estimated currently at some USD $45 billion!—to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. The Initiative was launched in 2009, with the stated mission to, “advance human potential and promote equality in areas such as health, education, scientific research, and energy.” It immediately sparked media controversy, because the Initiative is not a charity: it’s a limited liability corporation. Accusations flooded in that this was a tax shelter, not a philanthropic vehicle. Skeptics decried Zuckerberg’s motives.

The vast fortune Zuckerberg and Chan control as a result of Facebook’s unimaginable success could fund a long, diverse list of successful social projects and programs, around the world, for a very long period of time. Let’s just assume for the moment that it will, and that all intentions are good.

The challenge—and it’s always odd to speak of a ‘challenge’ when we’re talking about wealth, but here it is—is how they should design a strategy to drive the change they wish to see in the world. Their stated focus areas are clear: health, education, scientific research, and energy. But each of these is a vast subject area! What, specifically will they set out to achieve? What is the positive impact they want to drive in each sector? How will they know they’ve been successful?

The work ahead for Zuckerberg and Chan is to develop a strategy for their Initiative that is at once….

  • Complementary of work already being done in their chosen sectors, so they aren’t accused of pushing aside other like-minded, equally dedicated peers in the social sector,
  • Transparently presented, to allay the fears of their critics,
  • Welcoming of the diverse perspectives of experts in their chosen sectors, so they’re sure their resources, vast as they are, are used efficiently and effectively,
  • Sufficiently focused to lay a pathway toward measurable impact,
  • Simultaneously generous enough to foster real change, while conservative enough to avoid ostentatious waste,
  • Adaptive to the dynamic contexts into which they’re stepping…

The list goes on and on…. Dr. Chan and Mr. Zuckerberg are confronted with a strategic challenge that is at once daunting, complex, dynamic, utterly public, and deeply enviable! To build the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative into a TrustBrand, its benefactors will need to remain open to the skeptics’ concerns, and address them directly.

What would you do with $45 billion?!

Were we in their position, or were we advising the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, we’d convene a team of thoughtful, comfortably critical experts and focus on developing distinct strategies in each of the sectors they aim to serve. This isn’t a ‘snap your fingers’ proposition, so we’d need to communicate publicly that the team-building would come first, and funding would follow. (This doesn’t preclude immediate and short-term philanthropic gifts from the Initiative.)

We’d establish a governance model to help ensure the Initiative’s work, particularly in education, doesn’t get tangled with Facebook’s corporate interests. After all, the Initiative’s endowment will be Facebook stock for the foreseeable future. Conflicts with Facebook’s interests could negatively impact the value of the Initiative’s holdings.

Then we’d focus strategy in each sector either on…

  1. Specific geographic regions: By honing in on the specific social and environmental challenges faced in a particular geographic region (whether an American city, an Indian state, or a whole country), the Initiative could develop a multi-pronged, systemic approach to change, including philanthropic or government programs, partnerships with other non-profits, investments in social enterprises, and even social finance vehicles.
  2. Vital movements: In each of the sectors Zuckerberg and Chan aim to serve and support, dedicated activists and social entrepreneurs have ignited social movements that hold compelling visions for new approaches, practices and policies. Those changemakers have laid the groundwork; Chan and Zuckerberg would do well to learn their aims, follow their lead, and build on the good work that’s already been done.
  3. Wealth inequality: This is a problem the Initiative is uniquely positioned to take on. Philanthropy is in danger of being irreversibly poisoned by an environment of severe wealth inequality. No amount of philanthropy can compensate for a structural inequality that provides the wealthy with so much money to give away at their discretion.
  4. Staying dynamic: The Initiative is focused on four sectors. Zuckerberg and Chan could spend their lives spending down their wealth in each or all of them. And theirs is not the only fortune that will be dedicated to those sectors. Where else can help be offered? What other issues might emerge as people and societies evolve together? And can the Initiative maintain the agility to focus its vast capacity where it can drive the greatest social returns.

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is big enough to push philanthropic gifts, impact investments, strategic thinking, and reputational influence at the deepest, thorniest, most complex challenges faced by humanity this century.

Will they have the wherewithal, the strategic chops, and perhaps most importantly the leadership humility to act generously, generatively and openly? Will they build on their amazing opportunity to give the world a gift that endures as deeply as the Carnegie legacy? Or the Rockefellers’?

All too easily, well-meaning philanthropists fail because they simply don’t understand the problems they seek to solve. Dedicated, lifelong changemakers are motivated 99 times out of 100 by the problems they’ve experienced and endured, personally and directly.

In each of the focus sectors of their Initiative, Chan and Zuckerberg can learn from the lived experiences of countless thousands. This must be their starting point. Sit down, spend time, listen, and learn from the people who live and work every single day amid the challenges you seek to resolve, in the sectors you aim to support. (If you’re reading this, Dr. Chan, Mr. Zuckerberg, and there’s one thing you take from this article, this is it.)

Second, they must commit to multi-year, unrestricted philanthropic funding—showing confidence in changemakers’ convictions about what needs to be done. And finally, they must also provide the funds for analysis and evaluation, committing all projects to an open data mandate so everyone can learn from the Initiative’s good work.

Time will tell whether the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative will generate world-changing impact. The next few steps will be scrutinized beyond imagining. We stand at a time when historic wealth is concentrated in the hands of a remarkably small group. Dr. Chan and Mr. Zuckerberg: Will you lead the way into a new generation of philanthropy?

Mike Rowlands is a Principal & Managing Director at Junxion. He tweets @mrowlands about socially responsible business, philanthropy and entrepreneurial leadership.

You might also be interested in these related posts:

And Mike’s conversation on Vancouver’s Roundhouse Radio about philanthropy and impact investing.

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