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Facebook Founder's Philanthropic Aspirations Highlighted In Announcement

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

When Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, announced the birth of their daughter, they also announced that they plan to give away 99 percent of their Facebook shares to charity. In an open letter to their newborn daughter, Maxima, they wrote about what they hope to accomplish and how they're going to do it. For people who follow the Facebook founder closely, the details reveal a lot about what he's learned since he donated a hundred million dollars to fix Newark, N.J.'s public schools back in 2010. That effort was widely seen as falling far short of its goals. Dale Russakoff wrote about it in a book called "The Prize."

DALE RUSSAKOFF: What I found interesting from the very beginning was, you know, he was disarmingly open about how little he knew about philanthropy. He was 26 years old and he said that the goal of this gift was, you know, first of all, to try to help Newark and Newark students, but he wanted to use it as a chance to learn to become a better philanthropist.

SIEGEL: Well, when you saw the open letter yesterday, what struck you as evidence of lessons that he took away from the Newark experience?

RUSSAKOFF: Well, the first two principles were - seem to be drawn very directly from lessons learned from the problems they had in Newark. The first one, they think that philanthropy has to be for the long-term. I mean, 25, 50, 100 years - and the Newark gift was supposed to be a five-year gift in which they were going to not only turn around the Newark schools but come up with a model that could be used in every district in the country to turn around all the failing schools in urban America. I don't know that they ever expected to accomplish that in the first place, but five years is not enough time to do that even in one city. And then the second principle was that they wanted to make sure that, you know, in doing philanthropy, that they were engaged from the beginning with the people who they were trying to serve - the community - and that they had to know their needs and their desires in order to serve them and in order to help empower them. And I think one of the real problems in Newark was that there was no - almost no community involvement and that the entire agenda was planned without the input of anyone who had ever taught in the Newark schools or had a child in the Newark schools, and there was tremendous, explosive resistance in Newark that at various points, imperiled the whole effort.

SIEGEL: I wonder if they've derived a lesson from the scale of the gift compared to the institution they were giving to. That is, a hundred million dollars is a huge amount of money, but the Newark public schools spend about a billion dollars a year.

RUSSAKOFF: That's right. In over five years, a hundred million dollars is only 2 percent of what the district schools were already spending. So, you know, they were talking about trying to change the systems in the school - the management systems. And I think they had hoped that by changing systems and changing incentives and having better data and better evaluation systems and better pay systems, to reward teacher excellence - that all of those things would translate into better student performance. And I think they realized that you have to do a lot more in the community and the neighborhoods and in the lives of the kids as well as in the system of the schools.

SIEGEL: Why a new philanthropic organization? Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan are 31 and 30. They're not very experienced in charitable works even with the experience of Newark. They could have given the money to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation instead. What's the point of creating a new philanthropic institution do you think?

RUSSAKOFF: Well, I think that they want to do things differently. You know, they're - what they're looking at in education is very different from what Bill Gates is looking at. And they want to do not just charitable investments but, you know, perhaps some profit-making investments to develop technologies that they think can make a different. So it's not a foundation, it's a - kind of a hybrid organization, it's an LLC.

SIEGEL: Dale Russakoff, thanks for talking with us about it.

RUSSAKOFF: Oh, thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: Dale Russakoff is author of the book "The Prize." It's about Newark, N.J.'s attempt to fix its schools with a hundred million dollar donation from Mark Zuckerberg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.