Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's recent pledge to put a fortune valued at $45-billion into a separate account devoted to social progress has been greeted with both praise and unwarranted skepticism.
Instead of creating a new charitable foundation and large bureaucracy to administer it, with the legal, tax and other requirements associated with that traditional approach, Mr. Zuckerberg will place funds into a limited liability company. This structure will provide him enormous flexibility in choosing how to reinvest both his billions and his personal influence back into society. As a lawyer working worldwide for individuals at the nexus of business, policy advocacy, law and philanthropy, I believe Mr. Zuckerberg's approach will allow him to bridge all four of these areas in a way that traditional "charity" structure cannot.
How might Mr. Zuckerberg deploy these funds effectively in these four areas? A few models I have executed with clients could illustrate.
- Business. One of the quickest and most promising ways Mr. Zuckerberg can cure social maladies is to invest in innovative, for-profit companies. The best vehicles for his goal to “cure disease” are the small and often underfunded biotechnology companies that are the engines of new drug discovery. C. Boyden Gray, former U.S. ambassador to the European Union, chose this path as one of his routes to improving society years ago. Today, he is a prominent investor in “immunotherapy,” drugs that stimulate the body’s own immune system to turn cancer and other afflictions into manageable rather than fatal diseases. An environmentalist client followed the same playbook and had me purchase a bioethanol factory and an “energy tobacco” company that seeks to replace food crops as the source for bioethanol. Early-stage companies inventing society-improving technologies are a great target for Mr. Zuckerberg’s goals and flexible LLC structure.
- Policy advocacy. Mr. Zuckerberg’s new LLC, unshackled from the restrictions of charitable foundations, can engage in political discourse, support or oppose politicians and push for both domestic and international outcomes he believes will benefit society. Ed Scott, one of the greatest philanthropists you never heard of, devotes much of his Silicon Valley fortune to influencing governments to address malaria, AIDS, foreign development and assistance and interfaith co-operation. Mr. Scott joined with U2’s Bono to create an organization called DATA (now the ONE Campaign), which deployed the singer’s star power and political access to raise billions of dollars from governments to tackle debt, disease and poverty relief. Actor Jada Pinkett Smith schooled herself on the ugly details of global human trafficking and used her access to politicians to get new protective legislation passed in less than a year. Mr. Zuckerberg is a major business celebrity, and he will find that the highly leveraged act of influencing governments will provide more systemic change than his money alone can accomplish.
- Law. If she weren’t an Academy Award-winning actress, Angelina Jolie would have been a fine lawyer. Her Jolie Legal Fellows initiative, in which we recruited highly qualified young Libyan and Haitian lawyers to go help their cash-strapped governments on matters ranging from constitution-drafting to representing incarcerated children, illustrate how relatively small investments can create major change. This effort was itself modelled on the Scott Family Fellows program, which provided development PhDs to support Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. This has been replicated again by Tony Blair and George Soros, with their own creative spins.
- Philanthropy. The charity world can be crowded and overlapping. As he did with Facebook, Mr. Zuckerberg should go where everyone isn’t, and seed symbolic opportunities that will galvanize others. Emergencies present opportunities for systemic change. Singer Cher quietly built a school in Kenya to educate the poorest of poor children, and partnered with the Kenyan government to deworm approximately half of all the children in Kenya. Actor Brad Pitt created the Make it Right Foundation after Hurricane Katrina to bring hope to New Orleans (and later to other disaster-hit areas), building affordable but architecturally sophisticated green homes for displaced residents of the Lower Ninth Ward. Actor Ben Stiller and art dealer David Zwirner provided symbolic hope and tangible progress to Haiti, rebuilding schools, hospitals and cultural institutions destroyed by the 2010 earthquake.
Such innovators are addressing unmet social needs around the world. Simultaneous with his advocacy for gay rights on the eve of the Sochi Olympics, Russian business leader Oleg Deripaska learned that local government officials planned to euthanize thousands of stray dogs. Mr. Deripaska persuaded the city to stop its policy, made adopting these dogs his immediate priority, built facilities to house them, arranged a global adoption program and began discussions with Russian and U.S. humane organizations about solving the stray-dog issue at a national level. Canadian business leader and former politician Belinda Stronach provided early leveraged funding and personal political influence toward unmet needs such as malarial bed nets and was an early champion for the advancement of young women and girls.
Accomplishing measurable changes can be challenging, but tremendously gratifying. New entrants, such as Mr. Zuckerberg, can accomplish great outcomes by taking calculated risks in business, policy advocacy, law and philanthropy.
Traditional foundations created to preside over large fortunes can be bureaucratic, ponderous and overly concerned about the sensitivities and agendas of the broader "community" of partners. Instead, why not approach social change the same way Mr. Zuckerberg approached business? Test and build better and more dynamic models, and apply leverage from government and partners to scale the ones that work. He will look at models that worked for others, then undoubtedly invent some of his own.