How $100 Million Really Gets Donated, Mark Zuckerberg Style

An email chain including Bill Gates, Square's Jack Dorsey, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, and founder Mark Zuckerberg reveals how stage-managed charity can be.

Here's what you saw: In 2010, Mark Zuckerberg appeared on Oprah to announce that he was donating $100 million to Newark's troubled school system.

What you didn't see were the behind-the-scenes machinations that come with such a huge gift. Some of those dealings and the spin involved have just come to light. For example, although the donation came from Zuckerberg personally, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg was hyper-involved at every level, right down to press release language and choreographing the participation of other big names. Zuckerberg authors only one email to the group, which is included in 96 pages of discussion leading up to the donation that the City of Newark released on Christmas Eve (when nobody was likely to notice).

Newark had refused to release these emails for two years, claiming executive privilege, until a lawsuit from a local parents group and the ACLU forced them to comply with the state's public records laws. (You can read the originals here, thanks to the Newark Star-Ledger.) In the emails, the planning team talks candidly about trying to make the donation look participatory, getting big names and big round numbers involved, and making sure the billionaires look "modest" and feel "special."

“URGENT: Having the ability for citizens put in funds to help match Mark’s money is fantastic….Can this get done?” -Sheryl Sandberg, 9/19/2010

Sandberg and the Facebook team wanted individuals to be able to contribute to the Newark schools fund $5 or $10 at a time. With the clock ticking, they discuss possible technical solutions to the logistics of accepting small donations using innovative platforms such as Square, DonorsChoose.org, PayPal, Sean Parker’s Causes, Google, and Kiva. One conference call was scheduled for 10:30 p.m.

"They believe it's bad positioning for Mark if only higher end donors are able to contribute to the matching funds in large chunks." -Sarah Ross, 9/18/2010

Sarah Ross, director of new media at Ashton Kutcher's company Katalyst, helped out the Newark team with the crowdfunding piece, getting Jack Dorsey and a team of engineers to crash a "real time fundraising" solution involving Square and Amazon Payments. Ultimately, however, the pieces didn't come together in time to collect significant small donations.

The team next turned to attracting other high-profile donors, such as Oprah, Warren Buffet, Pershing Square investor Bill Ackman, Eli Broad, and Bill Gates to the cause.

“The plan is to have a one on one with Bill [Gates] so he feels special…” -Bari Mattes, 9/22/2010

Leading up to a potential Gates contribution came the intricate choreography of a fundraising meeting between Gates and Zuckerberg, the subject of this email between Mattes, one of Newark mayor Cory Booker's fundraising advisers, and Facebook's Sandberg.


“I’ve anchored that they should do $10-$15 million. He mentioned $3-$5 million on the phone and is now saying $3 million here." -Mark Zuckerberg, 9/19/2010

This is the lone email from Zuckerberg in the chain, summarizing his "ask" to Bill Gates.

"I told Warren [Buffett] about it and he was thrilled. I will send you later some information about where the discussion with Oprah on that topic is." -Bill Gates, 9/19/2010

Although the email forwarded by Zuckerberg from Bill Gates was redacted from this release, a local news blogger was able to read through the black bars. "When I spoke with Melinda and the team at our foundation who does the K-12 work about our partnering with you on the New Jersey work they were very excited," Gates wrote to Zuckerberg. The billionaire philanthropist goes on to suggest a $3 million gift.

Zuckerberg pushed back, hoping for a bigger check: "I’m glad you’re on board with this. I mentioned this to Cory (Booker) as well, and he’s very excited that you’ll be participating. He also confirmed that the budget for measurement in his plan will be in the $10-$15m range we discussed, so giving some or all of that will be very helpful."

Gates put in $3 million for "teacher professional development, and said his foundation could install "panoramic cameras" in classes to "allow observation of what teachers do well and what they need to improve." The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is already funding a research project, part of Measures of Effective Teaching, that videotapes classrooms in 360 degrees with sound.

When the time comes to tell the world about the gift, Elliot Schrage, VP Communications and Public Policy of Facebook, gives input on the announcement press release. He also taps Peter Cunningham, director of communications for Education Secretary Arne Duncan, for advice on messaging.

"Employ language that resonates well with a mass audience, without alienating potential adversaries... Our goal is to better explain objectives and avoid hot-button words if we can.” -Elliot Schrage, 9/19/2010

After the announcement, we hear about an important deliverable: the positive press coverage, playing against the unflattering portrayal of Zuckerberg in the 2010 movie The Social Network.


“Coverage is now mostly recapping the Oprah segment, highlighting Mark’s quotes on the movie and education and describing the first look into his modest life while continuing to note he wanted the donation to be anonymous... Overall the coverage and tone is generally positive—reflecting that though the donation could be seen as trying to thwart a negative image of Mark from the movie, it doesn’t matter and this is a really commendable donation.” -Victoria Cassady, 9/24/2010

From a coverage report email from PR professional Victoria Cassady.

Lastly, there's the actual recipients of this windfall. As suggested in a passing reference made by Mattes, there was an understanding among this small group before the donation announcement that the Zuckerberg millions would be earmarked for something other than the classroom.

“Mark’s money is not going in to classrooms.” -Bari Mattes, 9/19/2010

The original public records request stemmed from concerns that Zuckerberg's money came pre-earmarked and that it represented a lack of transparency and community involvement in the planning for Newark's struggling public schools.

There is some evidence to support this view. For example, there are several references in the chain to L.A.-based philanthropist Eli Broad's interest in knowing who the new Newark Superintendent would be as a condition of participation in the donation. (Their pick, Cami Anderson, a former Executive Director at Teach for America and former deputy of Joel Klein at the NYC Department of Education, was a friendly one to this crowd.) If there is a smoking gun in these documents for NJ school activists, the following is probably it.

“...The potential teachers’ contract investment, technology investment, and other investments that paid extraordinary dividends in NY and beyond.” -Cory Booker, 3/16/2011

Booker is referring to the national school reform agenda pioneered by many of the foundations and donors mentioned here and carried out by leaders such as Klein in New York City and Michelle Rhee in Washington D.C., typified by school closures, opening charter schools, greater emphasis on test scores and teacher accountability, and more use of data. As superintendent, Rhee used $64 million in private outside donations to provide raises and bonuses to D.C. teachers as part of a contract renegotiation. Anderson announced this past fall that she would do the same with much of the Zuckerberg money in Newark.

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13 Comments

  • shaun

    FC, i would suggest reading the article again and then reading your replies with perspective. this is written like a business insider piece

  • Stephen Vard

    This is a complete none story for me, full credit to all the investors involved in trying to make a difference in making these donations, given how busy these people must be its a credit to them for investing not only money but their valuable time.  Speaking as an Irish person living in Dublin, I applaud their generosity, interest and commitment by all the investors.  I am often so taken back that so many US business leaders show great leadership and concern for others in projects like this, they should be commended for these action, and not viewed with this type of cynicism

    The missed story here is, how will the money help the students and the school, I would like to learn more about the technology advances suggested by the investors, this sounds very interesting.  Surely the involvement of these great minds and their ideas / vision is part of the gift. 

    I regret to say that for me I find this article has missed the point, and I sincerely hope it will not put off an others in the future from following this lead and doing whats right to help future causes.

  • Jack

    Regardless of public appeal and all the other malarkey the author tries to pivot on... Zuckerberg and a group of peers gave a massive amount of money to an education system. THIS IS 100% A GOOD THING!!! What the hell is wrong with people for attempting to shed any negative light on this matter at all? Are you serious? Lose the pessimistic perception with which you obviously view life and realize the good here. 

  • vel8236

    What is the actual point of this story? There seems to be no scandal at play, and the email chain seems to be pretty natural for several companies/organizations to be interacting with each other, especially across state lines. It's disappointing to see how much attention a large donation transaction gets just because it's tied to charity. Especially in this case it's not even public money. We should all be able to donate to causes we feel passionate about without any sort of discrimination or investigation. 

  • susan

    whoever SCOMARSH is--what he or she said! the only other possible lesson is for us in fundraising, and PR/marketing people to keep integrity in the process and remember transparency should be part of that process. in philanthropy there should be no back-door wheeling and dealing. that wasn't the case per the e/mails shown, but it's an oppty to remember the lesson.

  • Tyler Fastcompany Gray

    Transparency in leadership. Integrity in marketing/PR. Those are the themes revealed here. Remember, Zuckerberg didn't give this money to another corporation or a private charity. He gave it to schools. The public. The people. It's their money after he does that. As Anya said, the expectation of scandal was only manufactured by those who fought turning over these emails. The story doesn't drum anything additional up. It's a look at what all is involved with giving away $100 million--not just to some random cause, but to a public school system. With that amount comes (proper) concern about the hijacking of an agenda so many parents helped to set. Remember, innovation is a really scary thing in a public agency. Democracies and public bureaucracies are set up specifically to mitigate risk. And risk is an essential factor in the kind of innovation Mark Zuckerberg (and Bill Gates) know so well. This is foreign territory to anyone used to dealing with gov't bureaucracy and transparency is a huge factor. Here's how Michael Bloomberg put it in the Aug. 2011 issue of Fast Company (http://www.fastcompany.com/176...

    "The public," Bloomberg says, "insists, and arguably has a right to insist, that it knows where its money's going. [They] have a very high expectation of results." He is talking about how the government spends its funds. "That is not the way innovation works. Innovation--the essence of innovation--is you don't know what you're going to build, what it's going to be called, how much it's going to cost. You cannot use public monies unless you can answer virtually every one of those questions, which is why government tends not to innovate. The public wants that accountability in advance, that justification in advance. But that's not going to work for certain things."

  • Anya Kamenetz

    Thanks for your comments. There's nothing inherently bad about marketing or PR in philanthropy. But when private money goes to support public schools, there are always concerns about transparency because of the principle of local, democratic control. The City of Newark compounded those concerns by witholding these emails. Even if there is no scandal here, transparency and accountability are watchwords in leadership and it's hard to argue that the highest standard was upheld here. 

  • Good Job

    So when you give alms, do not have it trumpeted before you; this is what the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win human admiration. In truth I tell you, they have had their reward. But when you give alms, your left hand must not know what your right is doing; your almsgiving must be secret, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.

  • TruthSeeker

    That's the first thing that came to my mind when I read this. Crazy how 2000 years later these truths are still so evident.

  • Scomarsh

    Some wealthy people wanted to give money for the betterment of a struggling school district. They are doing this in the public eye, and want it to have maximum impact. What idiot would just give that much capital WITHOUT thinking through how to maximize it and best emphasize it's message so that the school district succeeds as much as possible? You can quibble here and there about how this was done because, of course, every person would have done it slightly different if it were them giving it. This is called leadership, not spin management. Good lord. It's obvious that the author of this article doesn't lead anything. If he/she did, this wouldn't have been an article. Does this really merit coverage as though it's some scandal? And further, doesn't it only exacerbate the culture of suspicion and mistrust that keeps difficult school districts stuck? This could have been celebratory, but instead it casts doubt on the whole thing. Please do responsible journalism that makes the world better next time. 

  • Jeff

    Thanks for nailing it Scomarsh. What a non-article this is. Was it supposed to be revealing a negative of some kind? "How stage-managed charity can be" suggests a lack of integrity or facetiousness. If this is the best "dirt" or little text-bites they could come up with from 96 pages of discussion, this is probably the greatest example of integrity for an unaffiliated group of rich people handing a lot of money... a LOT of money... in history. If the article was not intended to criticize or reveal something scandalous then what was it about? Simply congratulating the donors on their generosity would have sufficed, of course, this has already happened on a much better platform.

    Of course they want the donation put in the best light.