News and analysis
December 22, 2015

Learning From Mistakes Crucial in Spend-Down of Facebook Fortune, Chan Says

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Priscilla Chan and Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg plan to focus their giving on personalized learning, curing diseases, connecting people, and strengthening communities.

Priscilla Chan and her spouse, Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, will hire a small, nimble, and visionary team of experts to guide the distribution of their $45 billion in philanthropy while engaging directly with those being served to understand their needs.

"We’ve learned that we must keep listening, learning, and improving," Dr. Chan said in an email response to questions from The Chronicle. "That’s why we’re starting young, so that we can get better over time."

The comments came three weeks after Dr. Chan and Mr. Zuckerberg pledged 99 percent of their Facebook holdings to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a limited-liability company that will invest in for-profit companies, advocacy work, and nonprofit groups.

The couple will work with expert advisers in focusing their attention on personalized learning, curing diseases, connecting people, and strengthening communities, Dr. Chan said. As an example, she pointed to the independent board of Startup:Education, a nonprofit created by the couple in 2010 to house their education-focused grant making.

"In addition to seeking counsel from advisers, we plan to hire leaders in each of our focus areas to guide our work," Dr. Chan said. "We believe in backing the strongest and most visionary leaders in each field because we know that partnering with and listening to experts is more effective than trying to lead the efforts ourselves."

She did not say whether she and Mr. Zuckerberg would establish a board of trustees for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Such a move might temper the kind of criticism often directed at major philanthropies that decision-making power is concentrated in the hands of an elite few.

Big-Name Mentors

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, already being referred to by some as CZI, has not yet made any investments, Dr. Chan said.

She shared some insight into who helped shape the couple’s thinking on the creation of the new entity. She and Mr. Zuckerberg admire and learn from many other philanthropists, she said, citing "mentors like Bill and Melinda Gates" and Mr. Zuckerberg’s Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his spouse, Cari Tuna.

"We also looked to Mike Bloomberg’s work integrating policy alongside grant making, and the innovative model of Omidyar Network in determining what structure best suits our goals," Dr. Chan said. "We also sought advice from philanthropists active in our areas of focus."

The couple is not new to philanthropy. They signed the Giving Pledge in 2010, committing themselves to give away more than half their fortune. The same year, the couple announced a $100 million, five-year gift to improve public education in Newark, N.J. That effort was largely deemed a failure because of factors that included lack of adequate engagement with the local community, among other things.

Ms. Chan said that she and her husband have learned important lessons from their early work.

"For example, we must make very long term investments — great challenges like improving and personalizing education, curing diseases and building stronger and more equal communities require time horizons of 25, 50 or even 100 years," she said.

In a video posted in concert with the December 1 announcement, Mr. Zuckerberg said, "You are not going to be perfect" at philanthropy work the first time around.

"In the projects that we are going to try to do in education, and science and health, and community building, we will learn lessons over time and hopefully get better and better," Mr. Zuckerberg said.

Basic Research

Specific CZI investments will not be made public until the spring. But mining Mr. Zuckerberg’s public comments, and his extensive reading list, during the last year offers some clues about where the money could end up.

Basic scientific research appears to be high on the list. At a public forum in Delhi in October, Mr. Zuckerberg noted that the U.S. government spends 50 times more money treating the sick than it does curing diseases.

"I think there is a really big opportunity to change that, and for our generation of folks to say, ‘Hey, the world is getting better at a very fast rate. And instead of just looking at the status quo around this, we should be shifting more of our resources toward longer-term investment that can actually try to cure all these diseases,’ " Mr. Zuckerberg said.

His 2015 reading list — which he has shared on Facebook, of course — is heavy on topics in scientific research. In February, he took up On Immunity: An Inoculation, by Eula Biss, recommend to him by "scientists and friends who work in public health," he said. Other books on his list included Matt Ridley’s Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters and Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Education Commitment

The couple has already made sizable investments in another of their stated focus areas, education. In October, for example, Dr. Chan announced the creation of the Primary School. It is a private preschool-through-eighth-grade facility in low-income East Palo Alto that will provide health care and other social services for its families, a reflection of Dr. Chan’s experience working with poor children as a medical professional and educator. She is to serve as chief executive.

Dr. Chan and Mr. Zuckerberg have already confirmed one CZI staff member. Caitlyn Fox, an alumna of the Rockefeller Foundation and the philanthropy consultancy Redstone Strategy Group, will serve as chief of staff at the new philanthropic entity.

It is likely that the CZI team will remain small, Ms. Fox told The Chronicle. The intent is to keep money flowing toward impact rather than spending it on employees. A small team will also keep things nimble, creating tight feedback loops.

While the organizational structure chosen by Mr. Zuckerberg and Dr. Chan is not subject to the disclosure laws of a traditional foundation, CZI intends to disclose most investments, except in some cases, like when a private company does not want to be public about an investment round, Ms. Fox said.

For her part, Dr. Chan said she would like to see others commit to giving generously at a young age.

"It takes a long time to get good at something, so it’s important to begin as early as possible so that we can improve and begin to see the compounding benefits of the work over time," she said. "We — the current generation — have a moral responsibility to make the world better for future generations. We hope others will join us in committing to do our small part to make this happen."

Send an email to Megan O’Neil.