By now, you’ve surely read Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s lengthy open letter to their newborn daughter, Max. In it, they express their hopes that she will actively contribute to their philanthropic goals of improving health care, promoting equality, and expanding access to education and the Internet. The letter also serves as an announcement of the couple’s plans to donate 99% of their Facebook shares to advance these goals.
Zuckerberg’s letter is part of a long tradition of wealthy business moguls who have penned letters of wisdom and advice to their children. Many of these letters have similar themes. The first is that great wealth comes with great responsibility to make the world a better place. The second is that these parents worry that their children will become soft, unambitious, and spoiled because they have been born into such rich families.
In these letters, we get a glimpse of how each scion tries to steer their children on the right path.
John D. Rockefeller, the patriarch of the Rockefeller clan, made his money by cofounding the Standard Oil Company in 1870, which held a monopoly over oil refining and distribution in the U.S. for decades. As he accumulated a fortune, he spent a lot of time pondering how to use that wealth in letters to his only son, John D. Jr.
Often, the letters themselves contained checks. When his son celebrated his 21st birthday in college, for instance, Rockefeller sent him a relatively modest check, along with advice about the value of money.
“I enclose check to your order for twenty-one dollars, for your twenty first birthday, being one for each year… We are grateful beyond measure for your promise and for the confidence your life inspires in us, not only, but in all your friends and acquaintances and this is of more value than all earthly possessions.”
Years later, however, the gifts exchanged become much larger in value. By 1922, when Rockefeller Sr. was 89 years old and one of the wealthiest men in the world, he regularly bestowed large sums of money to his son. He also has a clearer sense of his philanthropic responsibility to the world, which he expected his son to continue–much like Zuckerberg’s hopes for his daughter.
I appreciate more and more each day what your wisdom and intelligence and broad vision in giving has meant to the world. I realize increasingly the tremendous value that attaches to your endorsement of an enterprise, business or philanthropic, and I need not assure you that it will be my great pride, as well as my solemn duty, to endeavor, while emulating your unparalleled generosity, to live up to the high standards of intelligent giving which you have set. Whenever I am discouraged because of the littleness and the meanness and the petty jealousy of men I find renewed courage as I contemplate your patience, your bigness of heart, your Christian tolerance. Whenever I am oppressed with the feeling that one man can do so little even when he is doing his utmost, I only have to review the marvelous accomplishments of your extraordinary life in order to be heartened for the task which lies before me.
Charles Koch, the CEO of Koch Industries, just turned 80 years old. But he still values his father’s thoughts on the value of money. On the wall of his office, he has a framed letter that his father Fred wrote in 1936 when Charles was less than a year old. In the letter, he expresses his concern that his children might squander money from the life insurance policies he purchased for them in the event of his death.
“If you choose to let this money destroy your initiative and independence, then it will curse you and my action in giving it to you will have been a mistake,” he writes.
Only after his father’s death in 1967 did Charles discover the letter sitting in a safe deposit box. But the letter’s message seemed to sum up his father’s belief that money should not be an end in itself, but rather a tool to achieve a richer, more independent life.
Warren Buffett, much like Koch and Rockefeller, wanted his children to become self-reliant. But to practice what he preached, the billionaire investor gave his children a very small inheritance. His son Peter, for instance, received $90,000 in stock on his 19th birthday. To the average college student, this might seem like a windfall, but to the son of one of the richest men in the world, this seemed downright stingy. Peter, who had dreams of becoming a musician, promptly used the money to buy recording equipment.
In his memoir, Life is What You Make It, Peter recounts that he faced financial worries as a struggling musician throughout his 20s and 30s. And even when he went directly to his father for financial assistance, the elder Buffett refused to help him out. While this made him angry at the time, he insists that his father’s approach ultimately taught him to be independent and to build an identity apart from that of his father.
But it certainly was a strange way to grow up–especially considering that Warren Buffett gave each of his children $1 billion each to donate to charity. For Peter, who had to take out a second mortgage on his home when money got particularly tight, it was a striking sum of money. But he spent a lot of time contemplating how best to use the funds and ended up giving a lot of it to young women in developing countries.
Warren Buffett was impressed with Peter’s philanthropic efforts, as well as those of his two other children, Howie and Susie. In 2012, he wrote a letter to all three of them, expressing his pride in their work and promising to double the amount of money each of them would be able to distribute to charitable causes.
I knew you would apply your considerable brains and energies to make the most of the funds from my gifts. However, you have exceeded my high expectations. Your mother would be as proud of you as I am. I see her influence in what you are accomplishing.
Over time, I expect the value of the annual distribution to average more than $100 million, though it will vary substantially from year to year. I’m confident you will use the money wisely, each in your own way.