Yesterday, an op-ed I wrote with President of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (and CEP Board Chair) Stephen Heintz was published in the San Jose Mercury News. In the piece, we offer four pieces of advice to Mark Zuckerberg and the other billionaires who have taken the Giving Pledge.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, at all of 26 years of age, is among the latest to take the Giving Pledge, joining a group that includes Oracle’s Larry Ellison, movie producer George Lucas, and investor Carl C. Icahn. These billionaires answered the call of Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett to dedicate at least half their wealth to philanthropy.
If all the Americans on the Forbes 400 list take the pledge, that would generate an estimated $600 billion in giving. That’s equal to twice total annual charitable giving from all sources in 2009.
But, for the Giving Pledge to really matter, what we need is not just more philanthropy.
We need more effective philanthropy. The challenge will be to sort through suggestions about what to give to and how to give it. So we offer some advice to Zuckerberg and the new class of major philanthropists.
1. Stay focused. New philanthropists are bombarded with arguments — often very good ones — for why this goal or that goal is deserving of support. But you’ll never know if you made a difference if you disburse your funds widely in small grants. The late Rodger McFarlane, who ran the Gill Foundation, put it this way. “There is an unlimited amount of injustice and suffering out there that I cannot mitigate. “… Part of the demand of this job is relentlessly focusing on exactly what we said we’re trying to do, and staying there.”
To have an impact, the Giving Pledgers will need to be specific about their goals and define sound strategies to achieve them. They also must gauge progress with performance measures.
2. Learn from history. In the nearly 100 years since the Carnegie Corp. of New York and the Rockefeller Foundation were established, there have been great examples of philanthropic success as well as stunning failures.
The Green Revolution, which brought agricultural techniques to developing countries that helped feed millions, is one example of success. The efforts of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to curb smoking is another. On the failures side, you have to dig a bit harder to find examples. One is the efforts of the Annenberg Foundation to improve public education in the 1990s; this one is cited frequently thanks to the Foundation’s laudable openness in sharing its evaluations.
3. Get feedback. If you’re taking the Giving Pledge, you are among the wealthiest people on the planet, and others are unlikely to criticize your choices. Your staff will start to live in your bubble, too, rarely hearing honest, critical feedback. Giving Pledgers will have to ensure they hear the brutal facts and opinions from those on the ground.
4. Don’t fall for “business thinking” as a magic bullet. Many suggest that making an impact in philanthropy just requires using “business practices.” But the problems philanthropy seeks to address are the very ones that have defied market-based solutions. Andrew Carnegie recognized this when he referred to his decision “to stop accumulating and begin the infinitely more serious and difficult task of wise distribution.” Warren Buffett said: “In business, you look for the easy things to do. In philanthropy, you take on important problems and it is a tougher game.”
In announcing his intentions, Zuckerberg said, “People wait until late in their career to give back. But why wait when there is so much to be done?”
It’s a very good question.
If Zuckerberg and the other billionaires commit themselves to the hard work of effective philanthropy, they will help make our world more safe, sustainable, healthy and replete with opportunity. That’s a pretty nice legacy.
PHIL BUCHANAN is president of the nonprofit Center for Effective Philanthropy, with offices in Cambridge, Mass., and San Francisco. STEPHEN HEINTZ heads CEP’s board and is president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund in New York.
Phil Buchanan is President of the Center for Effective Philanthropy.