My 2 cents on Zuckerberg's 45 billion pledge

By Nicola Crosta – Executive VP, Epic Foundation[1] - Twitter: @Nico_Crost

It was a crisp December morning 15 years ago, when I stepped in an orphanage for the first time in northern Thailand. The beautiful blue skies above Chiang Mai stood in sharp contrast to the reality of life below, as I walked amongst the stares of kids reaching out for no more than a simple hug. Looking back, that visit set off a chain of events that have changed my life[2]. A particular event made that day special.

I was about to leave the orphanage when I saw in the garden a small group of kids. As I approached them, I realized there was a child in the middle: he was distributing little presents to the others. The orphanage Director explained to me that Sam – an eight years old orphan – had decided to celebrate his birthday by giving his friends some presents he had fabricated for them.

This was it: the true essence of giving. The genuine act of sharing what you have - whatever it is - with the goal of doing good for others.

Beyond any book and article I have read, young Sam taught me what smart giving is about: he set himself the clear, ‘pure’ goal of offering some happiness to his friends (“purpose”), he did just what it took to meet his objective (effectiveness) and he did so by making good use of limited resources (efficiency).

In my judgment, those basic principles defining good philanthropy should be applied by anyone wanting to do good, including Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg.

Several friends and colleagues have asked my opinion on the ‘big pledge’ make by Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla. I was reluctant to give one because I was not particularly impressed by the wave of comments I heard in the last few days. On the one hand, I find the criticism already directed at Zuckerberg by many as being misplaced, at a moment when we still know so little about what his intentions and plans truly are. On the other hand, I find inappropriate the comments of all those that – perhaps because they are impressed by the amount pledged - are already glorifying him for what is – for now – just an announcement.

The reality is that the amount Chan and Zuckerberg are pledging – when you consider it as a % of development financing that is already available for social causes – is not per se going to make a difference[3]. $45 billion given throughout a lifetime does not guarantee positive impact. Evidenced, for example, by the struggle historically of governments and international organizations with much larger budgets to move the needle on important global issues. The key point here is not how much they will give, but rather how they will give it and how in turn that will influence giving.

Whatever the couple does will be incredibly visible, for a long time (Zuckerberg is just 30 years old). With a whole generation watching, Zuckerberg has the unique opportunity – and responsibility – to show that giving is not just about the amount, but about how you do it. To demonstrate how everyone can give in a way that generates impact and make the act of giving a meaningful part of their life (just like Facebook…). He can also show that philanthropy is not a ‘fashion’, a “selfie” built to construct a better image of ourselves. Instead, he can show how smart giving necessitates and reinforces the best parts of ourselves.

Chan and Zuckerberg have the opportunity to demonstrate to the millions that will follow them that they are not another Silicon Valley dynasty thinking that throwing money at problems will solve them. By humbly studying the areas in which they want to have an impact, by partnering with NGOs instead of merely funding them, and by using tools that have already been developed to allocate and monitor funding, Chan and Zuckerberg can provide a blueprint for how many others could give. Above of all I hope they will make time to ‘experience’ directly their philanthropic investments in a way that will take them out of their comfort zone and thus transform the way they give (and perhaps also the way they do business).

Zuckerberg can show to the millions that will follow him that philanthropy is acting with genuine purposeefficiency and effectiveness. Just like that little kid in Chiang Mai.

You can follow me on Twitter: @Nico_Crost

[1] Views are my own.

[2] After a few days I started Baan Dek Foundation, an NGO that provides services to thousands of vulnerable kids in Northern Thailand.

[3] Contrary to what most may think, the 45B USD pledged, when distributed across a life time, will not represent a particularly sizeable portion of the overall financing available for social causes, be it Government funding, development assistance or philanthropy.

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