Soapbox

Zuckerberg’s multibillion-dollar philanthropy pledge will spur imaginative solutions

In a letter welcoming their daughter Max to the world, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg pledged to dedicate 99 percent of their Facebook stock to improving the world.
In a letter welcoming their daughter Max to the world, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg pledged to dedicate 99 percent of their Facebook stock to improving the world. via The Associated Press

A half-century ago, Martin Luther King Jr. shared his vision of what he called “the beloved community.” This month, as I read Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg’s letter welcoming their daughter Max to the world – dedicating 99 percent of their Facebook stock to improving that world – I could not help but think that they are on their way toward earning a place among that community’s foremost citizens.

At the same time, I was not surprised that their announcement caused something of a kerfuffle. Indeed, Mark and Priscilla were hardly the first to commit their good fortune into good works and to see – at least initially – recrimination as a result.

Back in 1908, when John D. Rockefeller announced his intention to create a foundation, the news caused a firestorm. During this pre-income-tax era, inequality was rampant, and Rockefeller was the richest man in America. Immediately, the public and their representatives in Congress questioned the motives behind his act of philanthropy, certain that it was little more than a monopolist’s nefarious scheme.

In fact, after five years of congressional rebuke and rebuff, he turned instead to the state of New York, which in 1913 incorporated the foundation that still bears his name.

Today, inequality is rampant once again – and it has contributed anew to society’s cynicism about a new generation of wealthy philanthropists and their motives. Indeed, in the Bay Area as in New York City, this new wave of philanthropy takes place against a backdrop of gentrification, skyrocketing housing costs and widening wage gaps.

While there is reason to be concerned about concentrated wealth at the top and growing inequality in our society, Mark and Priscilla are calling attention to some of today’s most significant areas of injustice and inequality – controversial and systemic problems, not comfortable and simplistic ones.

In substance and sensibility, Mark and Priscilla’s pledge embodies the conviction at the heart of the idea of beloved community: that there is no justice anywhere unless and until there is justice everywhere.

From championing criminal justice reform and immigrant rights, to expanding access to voting booths and health care, Mark and Priscilla have begun standing up, speaking out and leaning in – issuing a clarion call for the kind of justice that emerges from more than just generosity.

The 20th-century history of philanthropy is bookended by titans of innovation – Carnegie, Rockefeller and Ford at one end; Gates, Buffett and Bloomberg at the other. Fifteen years into the 21st century, Mark and Priscilla are fast securing their standing among these ranks – bringing Internet-age insights to age-old scourges.

Their approach is driven by the passion and humility required to test, learn and course correct – to fail, but fail fast, as those in Silicon Valley might say. It’s a kind of “disruptive optimism” that will spur creative and imaginative – even revolutionary – solutions to the greatest challenges of our time, and help all of us build a better world for the children of their daughter Max’s generation and beyond.

Darren Walker is president of the Ford Foundation.

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