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Is Bill Gates throwing some shade at Mark Zuckerberg’s philanthropy?

“There are aspirations and then there are plans.”

Is Bill Gates throwing some shade at Mark Zuckerberg’s philanthropy?
[Source Images: Flickr user Jason McELweenie, Pete Marovich/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock]

Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg both quit Harvard and went on to found companies that made them billions. Both have pledged to use their vast fortunes–the former via Microsoft money, the latter from Facebook–to improve humanity. But their approaches to acting philanthropically definitely differ, so much so that Gates appeared to recently knock the approach his younger counterpart has taken in his charity work.

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“There are aspirations and then there are plans,” he told the New Yorker regarding the very broad mission of Zuckerberg’s Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a limited liability company that was founded in 2015 and, according to its website, looks for “bold ideas–regardless of structure and stage” to scale. The group’s two biggest stated priorities are biomedical research and education. It is also working on criminal justice reform and affordable housing.

When the initiative launched, Zuckerberg drew criticism for stating a seemingly both impossible and reductive goal to “help cure all disease in our children’s lifetime,” the story notes. The tech titan has since amended that to finding a way to prevent, cure, or manage all diseases within the same time frame.

Then Gates added: “And plans vary in terms of their degree of realism and concreteness.” He also pointed out that Zuckerberg’s lofty goals are “very safe” because they’re so future-oriented. That doesn’t mean that they’ll succeed so much as defer criticism for a long time. “[Y]ou will not be around to write the article saying that he overcommitted,” Gates told the New Yorker reporter.

That’s a lesson that Zuckerberg may have learned from his earlier dalliances in charitable change making. In 2010, he gave $100 million to the Newark public school district. It was a huge windfall that, the story notes, is “generally considered a failure.” High school graduation rates there have since improved some, but the money might have had greater impact if Zuckerberg had worked harder to understand what was really needed on a community level and worked to address that.

Gates, who has had his own mixed results in education reform, also operates globally in a more community-driven way through The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a $50.7 billion nonprofit grant-maker that, since 2000, has worked with existing charities that specialize in different fields. For example, the group has donated to World Vision, which delivers bed nets to immediately protect against malaria, while simultaneously funding research into larger breakthroughs, like new vaccines.

Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan funded their effort by committing 99% of their Facebook stock, and recently gave $12.5 million to an “Imaging Scientists” program aimed at advancing cellular biology by improving the tools that researchers use to understand and identify diseases. But that’s the sort of broad investment that lacks the urgency and built-in benchmarking of many of Gates’s commitments.

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Gates declined Fast Company’s request for comment. However, a spokesperson for CZI noted, in part, that “our mission at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) is ambitious because we believe that in order to chip away at big challenges, we need to focus both on the here and now and the long-game. Collaboration is key, and we are thrilled to be bringing technology to the table in new ways as well as working alongside people impacted by these challenges, and other philanthropies — like the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations — to accelerate change.”

All told, CZI has made $1.4 billion in grants and $100 million in venture investments so far. On the science front, that includes attempts to build what’s been dubbed The Human Cell Atlas, and an AI tool called Meta to help researchers sort through the flood of scientific papers sharing discoveries. Earlier this year, CZI and the Gates Foundation joined forces to solicit more information from teachers, universities, and entrepreneurs about educational tactics that might increase student success.

To be fair, when CZI first launched, Gates certainly appears to have endorsed its grand ambitions. “Priscilla and Mark are curious. Ambitious. Thoughtful. Open-minded and bighearted. Willing to learn and grow. And they care deeply about fixing the inequities they see in the world… We can’t wait to see what they’ll do in the decades to come,” he and Melinda wrote for Time magazine in April 2016 as a novel way to pay homage to the charitable sector’s latest power couple. Gates backed up that position on social media a few months later, when CZI pledged to commit $3 billion over the next decade, including funding Biohub, a $600 million health research center with nearby university partners in San Francisco. “Investing in research is at the root of important innovations,” he tweeted. “Incredible news from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.”

To that end, Gates’s shade might also serve as fair warning. In the philanthropic world, most organizations that want continued funding must often show steady benchmarks toward successes. That includes noting what’s working (or not) and adjusting accordingly. Just because CZI’s carte blanche checkbook makes that less of an immediate priority for the groups it’s working with, doesn’t mean it’s not important for maintaining a sense among the public that the money is actually going to good use. The group is still ramping up, so it’s too early to tell how much Zuckerberg has considered that. It’s definitely something Gates thinks about a lot.

“Somebody who is smart, and rich, and ends up not acknowledging problems as quickly as they should will be attacked as arrogant,” Gates noted elsewhere in the New Yorker story. That comment is ostensibly related to how Facebook’s focus on growth may have blinded its founder to how the platform would be used to affect political mood or influence elections. “I wouldn’t say that Mark’s an arrogant individual,” he added. But Zuckerberg may be the kind of leader who, without proper guidance, only learns through big mistakes.

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About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.

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