September 23, 2010
Facebook Founder as Philanthropist
Posted by Christine Hurt

I vividly remember the beginning of an English class in college when the professor (whom we called Dr. Death for reasons I don't recall now) detailed the staying power of the novel Frankenstein -- it had been reprinted X number of times, sold X copies, been translated into X languages, inspired X plays, X movies, X works of art.  Then, Dr. Death said "Mary Shelley was 18 years old at the time.  What have you done?"

This is how I feel when I think of Mark Zuckerberg, who is 26 and the youngest billionaire in the world.  Because of this one fact, his young age, I was surprised to read today that he is giving away $100 million to the Newark public school system.  (Zuckerberg did not go to school in NJ.)  Of course, if Facebook is really worth what we are told it is worth, and Zuckerberg will someday have an IPO day that rivals Sergey Brin and Larry Page's Google post-IPO sales, $100 million may be a rounding error.  But it's a very big deal to the troubled school system and is said to be the beginning of an education foundation that Zuckerberg wants to create.  Now, I've heard development people talk about self-made wealthy individuals as having "acquisition" phases and "giving" phases.  Zuckerberg seems to have moved to the giving phase at an extremely early age.  If you remember, another Harvard dropout named Bill Gates was also at one time the youngest billionaire, and received criticism for many years for not being philanthropic enough before creating his foundation.

So, is Zuckerberg just a much nicer person than Bill Gates?  Or, could it be, that Zuckerberg is facing a PR problem?  In a few days, a movie is going to open called The Social Network, which is going to paint a slightly younger Zuckerberg in a not-quite-flattering light.  However, many people say that the facts depicted in the movie (based on the book The Accidental Billioniares) are wrong, and that the real story about the beginnings of Facebook and the motivations behind individuals spinning the story the other way are far different.  However, even this story doesn't make Zuckerberg look like someone you would want to do business with without a lot of lawyers around.  So, is it coincidental that Zuckerberg picks this week to make a super-generous gift to a cause (public education) no one can fault? 

Whatever the motivations, let's hope that wonderful things flow from this generous gift.

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