Wednesday 2 December 2015

Dear Max: A New Power In The Charity Sector

Philanthropy is a big part of what makes charity work. The wealthy giving some of what they have to aid the poor has been part of the circle of life since ancient times. Some religions, notably Islam, make that link explicitly: it is part of your duty as a good Muslim to give a portion of what you earn to those in need. Zakah, as it's called, is one of the third pillars of the faith. It's a recognition that any wealth that any individual has is a gift from God and it comes with an obligation to use that wealth responsibly.

Sometimes, it's hard to see that sense of obligation amongst today's super-rich. Their money is squirrelled away in trust funds, off-shore accounts, in arcane financial deals that keep the taxman from their door. Charity becomes just another part of the portfolio, another way to claim back expenses.

There are notable exceptions, of course. Microsoft founder Bill Gates runs a charitable foundation worth billions, which does amazing work in fields like disease prevention. But yesterday saw an announcement that's redefined the boundaries, and at one stroke put a huge new player on the board.

Congratulations, first of all, to Mark Zuckerberg, the man who brought us Facebook. He and his wife Priscilla Chan are new parents to a baby girl, Max. You might celebrate an event like that with a party. Maybe an announcement in the press. Mark and Priscilla have launched a new charity organisation instead.

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has "the mission of advancing human potential and promoting equality", and is being funded with Zuckerberg's own stock of shares in Facebook. This instantly puts the new charity on track to be worth $3bn by 2018.

Obviously it's early days, and we have no idea what works the Initiative will be funding. But this is a big step forward, and has the potential to shake up the charity sector for the common good. Who knows, perhaps Zuckerberg's example will persuade more of the super-rich to step forward and take a little more responsibility for the incredibly fortunate position in which they find themselves.

The last word goes to Zuckerberg, in the form of the letter he wrote to his new daughter.

Dear Max,

Your mother and I don’t yet have the words to describe the hope you give us for the future. Your new life is full of promise, and we hope you will be happy and healthy so you can explore it fully. You’ve already given us a reason to reflect on the world we hope you live in.

Like all parents, we want you to grow up in a world better than ours today.

While headlines often focus on what’s wrong, in many ways the world is getting better. Health is improving. Poverty is shrinking. Knowledge is growing. People are connecting. Technological progress in every field means your life should be dramatically better than ours today.

We will do our part to make this happen, not only because we love you, but also because we have a moral responsibility to all children in the next generation.

We believe all lives have equal value, and that includes the many more people who will live in future generations than live today. Our society has an obligation to invest now to improve the lives of all those coming into this world, not just those already here.


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