Eighteen million shares of Facebook stock valued at $992,200,000: that was the size of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s donation to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation a few weeks ago. It was America’s biggest charitable gift of 2013. And it was the first time a philanthropist under the age of 30 led the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s annual top givers’ list. This follows a $500 million gift that Zuckerberg gave to the same foundation in 2012.
Zuckerberg is not only using his money to expand an existing community foundation, he’s using technology to transform how problems are addressed. In a forum at Stanford University last week, Zuckerberg explained his vision for getting more of the world connected to the internet. "We are robbed of an opportunity to benefit from the innovation that all those folks who are not connected can bring," he said. "I want Facebook, and other social apps, to do more than share the moments of day-to-day, but to really have utility and solve big challenges." Facebook launched Internet.org to promote this vision. Zuckerberg has also committed to supporting world-class researchers in the field of life sciences through the Life Sciences Breakthrough Prize.
For all of Zuckerberg’s focus on connecting the world and investing in science, it is notable that he chose a community foundation for his mega-gifts in 2012 and 2013. The Silicon Valley Community Foundation is the largest source of funding to San Francisco Bay Area nonprofits, while awarding more grants than any other community foundation in the country to global causes. The Foundation has assets of $3.5 billion in addition to Zuckerberg’s latest addition. From its discretionary funds, the Foundation supports five regional causes: Economic security, education, immigrant integration, regional planning, and community opportunity (largely benefiting programs that help the poor). These are worthy causes, and there’s a good chance that Silicon Valley philanthropists can make at least as much of a difference in solving their targeted problems as any government bureaucracy ever did.
This should inspire young Americans who are looking for ways to get involved in civic and philanthropic causes. Facebook itself has made young people constantly aware that the world around them is changing, and they want to be part of that. Markets make things like Facebook possible, and the resulting wealth can help to address big challenges. And when young tech entrepreneurs turn to philanthropy, they don’t just want to give to established causes, they want to be part of civic innovations that leverage technology, information, and relationships. They want to build networks, not just institutions.
The Dallas Morning News captured the generational symbolism of the latest donation, which Zuckerberg made with his wife, Priscilla Chan, in a recent editorial:
"Today, new and younger philanthropists who achieved great wealth at a remarkably early age are emerging and donating — not so much to create bricks-and-mortar institutions but to build programs aimed at bringing about social change. This kind of giving may have an equally powerful impact on our society as did that of the Gilded Age philanthropists. Not to mention that the trend of younger givers defies the myth that anyone under 30 is interested mostly in animal videos and selfies...
“What makes the couple’s donation notable is not solely the size of the gift, which indeed is astounding, but that both of them are under 30, marking the first time philanthropists so young have contributed so much to a single recipient. And while their incredible wealth at such an early age makes Zuckerberg and Chan exceptional, there are others under age 45 that the Chronicle of Philanthropy has identified in recent years as philanthropic power couples who already have given hundreds of millions of dollars to various causes."
Giving is good, and it’s also becoming trendy in the Facebook Generation. And if Mark Zuckerberg is the leading trendsetter of his generation, things are looking good for philanthropy in America.
Hans Zeiger leads Discovery Institute's Chapman Center for Civic Leadership.