Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, are not the only wealthy Americans to face controversy with their charitable plans.
When steel magnate Andrew Carnegie tried to get Pennsylvania towns to build public libraries in the 1890s by offering them matching funds, 20 of the 46 local governments he approached turned him down.
When John D. Rockefeller Sr. asked Congress to grant a federal charter for his proposed Rockefeller Foundation in 1910, Attorney General George Wickersham denounced it as "an indefinite scheme for perpetuating vast wealth" that was "entirely inconsistent with the public interest."
Rockefeller got his foundation chartered by New York state and Carnegie's public libraries, which began to spread across the country after 1900, are now often cited as the uncontroversial epitome of what private philanthropy can accomplish.
These examples are from "Philanthropy in America" by Oliver Zunz, a historian at the University of Virginia.
The first wave of American mega-philanthropy in the late 1800s and early 1900s was indeed hugely controversial. There's nothing new, or untoward, about people turning a gimlet eye toward billionaire givers such as Zuckerberg.
Zuckerberg and Chan earlier this month pledged to dedicate 99 percent of their wealth to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. It was a move that drew praise for their generosity, but criticism that the initiative would not be a charity but a limited liability company, and would remain owned by the couple, and free to engage in lobbying and for-profit activities.
Some of today's mainstays in charitable giving, such as foundations and trust laws, were the result of wrangling over someone's wishes.
In the 1800s, the big conflicts were between givers and their heirs, with judges often called in to mediate a solution. The most famous case was that of Samuel Tilden, the New York lawyer and politician who wanted his fortune to go to creating the New York Public Library.
After his death in 1886, Tilden's nephews and nieces (he had no children) challenged this bequest as impermissibly vague. They won in court, although Tilden's law partner was able to convince them to give some money toward the effort. Even more significant, the ruling prompted the New York legislature to follow up in 1893 with the Tilden Act (subsequently imitated by other states), which made it far easier to create charitable trusts that would stand up in court.
It's yet to be seen what conditions the Zuckerbergs might put on their money. However, demanding change would not be unprecedented either, Zunz's book points out.
The Carnegie Foundation for the Enhancement of Teaching, for example, used its clout to pressure private institutions to move away from their sectarian roots as training academies for ministers and shift to a more scientific approach. Colleges had to remove requirements that administrators, trustees, faculty or students belong to a particular religious denomination. After much grumbling — from Brown, Northwestern and Princeton in particular — the colleges fell in line.