As it rose from the fruit orchards over the decades to become the world center of advanced technology, Silicon Valley developed a stingy reputation for charitable giving.
In 1987, an executive at the San Jose Chamber of Commerce was quoted saying: “They’re willing to spend [their money] on Mercedeses and Ferraris, but not on YMCAs and crippled children.” Even Bill Gates admitted that running Microsoft was “all I focused on” in his 20s and 30s, and philanthropy came much later.
Today’s Silicon Valley, led by the 31-year-old Mark Zuckerberg, is doing away with that earn-now-donate-someday attitude.
On Tuesday, Facebook’s chief executive announced via a letter to his newborn daughter Max that he and his wife would donate 99% of their Facebook shares — currently worth $45 billion — during their lifetimes.
Zuckerberg — the world’s 16th wealthiest person and America’s richest entrepreneur under 40 — framed it as a way to help better the world for the newest member of his family and the rest of her young generation. It also underscored a new era of giving in Silicon Valley — and challenged other young billionaires to do the same.
Like all parents, we want you to grow up in a world better than ours today. Our society has an obligation to invest now.
“Like all parents, we want you to grow up in a world better than ours today,” Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, wrote in the 2,220-word letter, posted on Facebook. “Our society has an obligation to invest now.”
For years, Zuckerberg has been making a name for himself as a young philanthropist. Before Tuesday, he and Chan had already committed $1.6 billion to charitable causes.
Recent donations include $120 million to support education in underserved communities in the Bay Area; $75 million to San Francisco General Hospital; $25 million to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and $100 million to the Newark Public Schools system.
At 26, Zuckerberg signed the Giving Pledge, promising to give away the majority of his wealth, along with other tech leaders including Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, Oracle’s Larry Ellison and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Such gestures fostered some goodwill for the tech elite, especially amid widespread anger over the widening wealth gap in the Bay Area brought on by a burgeoning technology workforce.
Philanthropy experts said Zuckerberg’s charitable gifts reflected a generational shift.
In the past, the well-off waited until they were old or dead before donating substantial amounts to charity. David Packard, the Hewlett-Packard co-founder, created a foundation with his wife in 1964, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. But it wasn’t until he died in 1996 at 83 that the bulk of his wealth was transferred to the foundation, making it a philanthropic powerhouse.
“The way Gen X and millennials practice philanthropy is very different from the World War II generation and the baby boomers,” said Marian Stern, adjunct assistant professor in philanthropy at New York University’s School of Professional Studies. “Millennial donors are less patient. They want to use their money and they want to see changes now. It’s not surprising, given they’ve grown up in a fast-moving world.”
“Ideally people can start to mix in some philanthropy like Mark Zuckerberg has early in his career,” Gates, who has also pledged to give away the majority of his fortune, wrote on Reddit. “I have enjoyed talking to some of the Valley entrepreneurs about this and I am impressed [at] how early they are thinking about giving back — much earlier than I did.”
Zuckerberg’s pledge quickly drew praise from politicians, educators, celebrities and other philanthropists.
“Devoting his wealth to philanthropy at such a young age will not only benefit people from around the world for decades to come, it will also set an example for everyone in his generation who has the means to give. The traditional approach to giving — leaving it to old age or death — is falling by the wayside, as it should,” former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said. “Mark’s decision shows that when it comes to philanthropy, 30 is the new 70.”
Zuckerberg did not specify how he and Chan would distribute their wealth, nor provide a timeline for doing so, saying he would offer additional details once he returned from paternity leave.
But he plans to give away his money in a way that is not expected to affect his status as the controlling stockholder of Facebook for the foreseeable future. Zuckerberg has committed to dispose of no more than $1 billion of Facebook stock each year for the next three years.
As part of the effort, the couple launched the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, an organization that will initially focus on personalized learning, curing disease, connecting people and building communities. The initiative will fund nonprofit organizations, make private investments and participate in policy debates.
And she added: “It will be interesting to see if [Zuckerberg] is willing to address the role of his own industry in producing patterns of wealth production and inequality.”
Whatever they decide to invest in, Zuckerberg and Chan will be able to reap the rewards of donating at a relatively young age, said Melanie Ulle, founder and chief executive of Philanthropy Expert.
“What Mark and Priscilla are doing is giving themselves the opportunity to enjoy their philanthropy,” she said, “because it’s really hard to enjoy it when you’re dead.”
Chang reported from Los Angeles and Lien from San Francisco.