Facebook’s $100-million Donation: Amazing Generosity or Wasted Opportunity?

Are donations more productive when they're used to finance change-or when they are used to motivate it?

Unless you’ve been on vacation for the past two weeks, you’ve no doubt heard about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation to the city of Newark, New Jersey’s school system. To say that the do-gooder water cooler has been abuzz would be an understatement. And I think that’s appropriate. No matter your feelings on Facebook (essential tool? colossal waste of time?), $100 million is a staggering sum of money, one that is surely worth our attention—and our discussion.

Zuckerberg has built an empire worth roughly $25 billion and, for now at least, he appears to be putting some of it to good use. The guy took out his checkbook, wrote down a bunch of zeros, then went and hung out with Oprah on national television. When the story first broke, there was speculation about his motivation. Maybe he was trying to make up for Facebook’s recent privacy-related scandals. Perhaps it was a preemptive strike against The Social Network, which casts him as power-hungry and petulant. As interesting as these theories are, you know who doesn’t give a damn about his motivations? Newark.

In his announcement on Facebook, Zuckerberg said, “In 2009, only 40 percent of kids could read and write at grade level by the end of third grade, only 54 percent of high school students graduated and just 38 percent enrolled in college.” Clearly, the city could use the help. But is this the right kind?

It should first be noted that Newark already spends roughly $23,500 per student per year, an amount that is among the nation’s highest. So while Zuckerberg’s generosity is to be commended, there’s a chance that money might not be the solution to this problem.

Of course, the education system in Newark isn't the only thing that's problem-laden. It’s worth mentioning that $100 million is an awfully big bet for a city with so many problems. Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not saying that Newark isn’t worth taking a chance on. I’m merely questioning whether this was the way to go about doing it. And I’m not alone. In a Washington Post column, Robert Pondiscio argues that rather than a $100 million donation to the schools, Zuckerberg (and Newark) would have been better served by dangling the money as a carrot to stimulate progress. He asks:

[If Zuckerberg wanted to] drive change, why not follow the lead of the X Prize or its many predecessors? Offer it up in the form of a $100 million windfall to the first inner city school district that closes its 8th grade reading achievement gap on NAEP and keeps it closed for three years running? Or the first district to graduate 80 percent of its 9th graders from high school four years later? Create a rigorous, independent reading test and give the prize to the first district that gets 95% of its third-graders to pass it.


It’s an interesting question: Are donations more productive when they’re used to finance change or to motivate it? Could that money have been better used as incentive?

These and other questions abound. While the sentiment behind the donation is surely laudable, the act itself needs to be examined. It’s easy to get blinded by the dollar amount, but there are real issues hidden behind all of those zeros. So, where do we stand on this? Post your reactions in the comments. Is Zuckerberg’s donation an amazing show of generosity—or is it just a show? Does it have the potential to revitalize a school system in desperate need? Or could those funds have helped Newark more, had they been awarded in a different fashion? We’d love to know what you think.

Image via Flickr user CoryBooker

Julian Meehan

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