December 21, 2015

December 21, 2015 | Commentary on Civil Society

Lessons in Charity for Mark Zuckerberg

Charity is a blessing. But we are not commanded to be charitable merely to help others. Gifts are supposed to humble the giver. But lately, humility has been in short supply.

So colossal is Mark Zuckerberg’s current wealth that his pledge to give away 99 percent of it will leave his new daughter a mere $450 million on which to live. If anyone can afford to be charitable, it’s the founder of Facebook.

Yet I do respect him. From Andrew Carnegie to Bill Gates, the U.S. has led the world in producing great men of business who are also men of great charity. And it’s not just the rich who give: the United States ranks with Buddhist Myanmar as the world’s most charitable nations.

But as Margaret Thatcher once said, “No one would remember the good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions; he had money as well.” What matters is what you do with your good intentions. That’s where humility comes in.

Many early titans of industry used their money to build institutions of learning. Carnegie, famously, built libraries. Rockefeller founded universities. The so-called robber barons funded colleges, museums, and theaters across our nation.

They didn’t try to solve problems themselves: They gave others opportunities to learn. Carnegie didn’t try to buy world peace, or, like Nobel, award prizes to encourage it. He founded the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to study the great issues of war and peace. These industrialists had every reason to be arrogant. Zuckerberg has built a site for sharing snark, shouting about politics, and posting cat videos. They built the factories that made America. Yet while their philanthropy was great in scale, it was humble in design.

Today’s great givers should take a lesson from their charitable forbearers. Zuckerberg’s already made one effort to give away his money: his grant of $100 million to the catastrophically bad school system of Newark.

As Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus puts it, the result was a “case study in the difficulty of translating good intentions into concrete results.” Though charter schools have thrived, much of the gift was wasted on high-priced consultants, or simply disappeared into the system.

It turned out that what Newark needed wasn’t only more money. It also needed more of Carnegie’s libraries — and above all, more parents who read to their kids every night.

The arrogance of the belief that a quick fix was there to be bought in Newark is revealing: Problems that are about people can’t be solved with a check, for the same reason that giving a man a fish today doesn’t feed him tomorrow.

Zuckerberg’s still beating the drum for education reform, but his priority now is public health. As he put it: there’s a real shot of curing all of the diseases, or at least most of them, in the next 100 years if we do the right things.

At least Zuckerberg’s now taking the long view, though “all diseases” is far from humble. But the big killers in the United States are diseases of age and lifestyle. Around the world, they’re diseases of poverty. Those aren’t problems that will be easily solved with a pill.

The best kind of charity doesn’t promise expensive solutions. It provides opportunities that allow us to learn for ourselves — guided by parents who set standards, and in a nation that respects business and charity alike.

Zuckerberg’s achievements in business are admirable. So is his promise to give his fortune away. But for all his money, he can’t give away the things that really matter. They are beyond the gift of even the humblest billionaire.

About the Author

Theodore R. Bromund, Ph.D. Senior Research Fellow in Anglo-American Relations
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Thatcher Center for Freedom. This piece originally appeared at Newsday.