Mark Zuckerberg learned from early philanthropic stumble

Mark Zuckerburg and his wife Priscilla Chan have pledged to give away 99 percent of their Facebook stock to philanthropic purposes.
Mark Zuckerburg and his wife Priscilla Chan have pledged to give away 99 percent of their Facebook stock to philanthropic purposes. John Salangsang

When Mark Zuckerberg announced, at age 26, that he was giving $100 million to turn around Newark, New Jersey's deeply troubled schools, he was disarmingly open about how little he knew about philanthropy. He said in an interview at the time that he hoped not only to help the city's children but also to become a better philanthropist in the process.

It quickly became clear that he had a lot to learn.

When Zuckerberg made the announcement on "Oprah," Newark's then-Mayor Cory Booker effused – unrealistically – that they would turn the city's downtrodden public schools, where fewer than 40 percent of children were reading at grade level, into "a hemisphere of hope" in just five years. Booker, D, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, R, hoped to increase the number of charter schools, close failing district schools and overhaul the teachers' contract so as to lay off the weakest teachers and pay merit bonuses to the best.

But Oprah's national television audience learned of the revolution coming to the Newark schools before the city's residents did. And the reform effort proceeded largely without the input of teachers or parents, triggering a public uprising so intense that it helped elect city councilman Ras Baraka as mayor on a platform of stopping the reforms in their tracks. From 3,000 miles away, Zuckerberg read about rallies where Newark residents railed at him as an uncaring billionaire.

Some good did come of the fortune spent in Newark: expansion of the city's high-performing charter schools, a new contract that increases accountability for teachers, improved management systems inside a long-dysfunctional bureaucracy. But district schools attended by 60 percent of Newark children have been plunged into a financial crisis, largely because of the exodus to charters. Student performance on the state standardized test in those schools has dropped.

On "Oprah," Zuckerberg said he hoped Newark would become a national model for how to transform failing urban school districts. Today, multiple philanthropists use it as a case study in how not to relate to communities they seek to help.

Still, Zuckerberg emerged as one of the more serious students of the missteps, determined not to repeat them.

In a letter he and his wife, Priscilla Chan, wrote to their newborn daughter, Maxima, pledging to give away 99 percent of their Facebook stock in their lifetimes, they laid out six guiding principles for what they called the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Principles Number 1 and 2 are clearly drawn from what went wrong in Newark. The first one calls for investing for the long term – 25 years, even 100 years, certainly not five years, the Newark time frame.

"Short-term thinking," they wrote, will not begin to solve the great challenges of their time, including poverty, disease, educational inequity, broken communities.

Their second principle is to "engage directly with the people we serve. We can't empower people if we don't understand the needs and desires of their communities." In Newark, largely bypassing the community was not only politically calamitous; it produced an agenda that didn't equip schools to address profound emotional needs children bring into classrooms every day – needs about which parents and teachers could have offered powerful insight.

It is interesting that the couple chose to put Chan's name first in christening their new venture. Chan, who herself comes from a disadvantaged background, is a proponent of a holistic approach to education. As a pediatrician working with underserved patients in San Francisco area safety net hospitals, she became convinced that children raised in extreme poverty suffer health and emotional consequences and require extensive support that the prevailing education reform agenda doesn't contemplate.

She is using her and her husband's philanthropy to found a school that will operate in partnership with a community health center, providing medical and mental health care in tandem with education and community-based services, creating a web of support for students with the greatest needs, beginning in early childhood.

Hours before Zuckerberg and Chan revealed their $45 billion initiative to the world, the foundation dispensing the couple's gift in Newark announced it was committing $10 million to help develop a network of community schools there – a priority of Mayor Baraka's – schools that are to offer wraparound services for students, as well as for adults and neighborhoods.

In the aftermath of the uprising that fueled Baraka's election, the foundation has made other visible investments in the community, including the mayor's summer youth employment program and a citywide campaign to increase the proportion of college graduates in Newark. At the community-schools announcement, Baraka stood shoulder to shoulder with the foundation's president, Kimberly McLain, and the state-appointed school district superintendent, Chris Cerf – a belated tableau of rapprochement.

Booker and Christie have left behind the education reform struggle they launched with fanfare in 2010 – Booker for the Senate, Christie for the presidential campaign trail. Zuckerberg, alone among the men who sat on Oprah Winfrey's stage that day, appears to have been changed by the experience.

As he and Chan wrote to their baby daughter, it will be decades, perhaps even a century, before their new, far grander initiative reaches fruition. But if it bears even some of the fruits they hope for Maxima and her generation, it will be in part because of the lessons her parents learned the hard way in the tough, educational precincts of Newark.

Dale Russakoff, a former Washington Post reporter, is the author of "The Prize," published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.