Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's recent announcement that he's donating 99 percent of his Facebook stock to a new philanthropic organization is welcome news. That grant donation, currently valued at $45 billion, certainly will go a long way toward achieving his philanthropic goals: eradicating malaria around the world and providing universal Internet access, among other lofty ambitions. Who knows, maybe he'll even adopt the goal of improving American Indian schools, as recently was suggested by the Star Tribune's editorial page.
As someone who also has benefited financially from the technology sector (albeit significantly less than Mark Zuckerberg has benefited), I've always believed in the importance of giving back and using my resources to help society and people who are suffering. That's why my wife and I created the Intertech Foundation 12 years ago and why, more recently, our company began funding a STEM college scholarship for students who are interested in the computer science field.
We've also given modest financial support to educational programs like FIRST and encouraged our employees to donate some time each month to volunteerism through the Ronald McDonald House of the Upper Midwest.
Do I have any illusions that our philanthropy is going to eradicate the major problems facing the planet? Do I suppose a small firm like mine can effect the sort of change that people with pockets as deep as Mark Zuckerberg's (or Bill Gates' for that matter) are capable of inspiring? Only a fool would answer yes, but that does not deter me from doing what I think is right. I hope it does not deter you or the firm you own or work for either.
I believe in the wisdom of Mother Teresa, who is frequently credited for, among many other accomplishments, her comment that while "not everyone can do great things," we all can "do small things with great love." She also noted that much of the good that people do will be cynically questioned, their motives impugned and their noble intentions smeared with metaphorical mud. She advised to "do it anyway."
I see this happening with the backlash building against Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. Cue the orchestra's cynicism section: "he's just shielding Facebook from taxes," "he arrogantly thinks he can save the world," "he's trying to buy goodwill for Facebook" and on and on. Writer James Surowiecki notes in the New Yorker magazine that John D. Rockefeller experienced the same cynical wrath in an earlier era when he was attacked for reasserting "the old reign of aristocracy under the new names of philanthropy and science." Yet the Rockefeller Foundation today is deeply respected and has accomplished many laudable goals.
Then, as now, others question whether private foundations should be allowed to tackle public problems. But as Surowiecki rightly points out in his New Yorker article, "In Defense of Philanthrocapitalism," private foundations do not face the same political and financial pressures of government and business. They are in a unique position to tackle big, thorny problems — sometimes on a global scale — that no one else can, or wants, to tackle.
So I salute Zuckerberg and Gates for their audacity, generosity and vision. And, more important, I hope the sheer grandeur of their largesse does not discourage anyone else from stepping forward to do — to paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt — "what they can, with what they have, where they are."
When I sought to establish the Intertech Foundation, which provides financial support to families with critically ill children and to science- and tech-related educational learning, I was told to forget about it.
"You don't have enough money to make a difference."
"It will cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars to start a foundation."
"The legal fees alone will eat you alive."
On and on went the naysayers. Luckily, I'm contrary enough to find inspiration in the negativity of naysayers. A little research led me to a solid Minnesota lawyer who not only helped us get our foundation up and running, but also did so at a tiny fraction of the cataclysmic legal fees predicted by the naysayers.
That was 15 years ago. Since then our foundation has helped relieve financial stress for nearly 100 families experiencing the worst crisis of their lives. It has supported great programs that encourage young people to engage with science and computer science learning. Our philanthropy and funding priorities also have shown our employees that we truly stand for more than just profit and growth for growth's sake.
At the end of the day, we all — no matter the number of zeros attached to our bottom lines — have a part to play in making the world safer, cleaner, kinder, smarter and just plain better. It's a challenge many of us take seriously. I hope you will join us.