The XX Factor

Priscilla Chan’s Formidable Influence on Mark Zuckerberg’s Philanthropy

Mark Zuckerberg, Priscilla Chan, and baby Max.

Photo via Facebook

Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan heralded the birth of their baby daughter, Max, in a Facebook post today. In a letter to Max that busts the traditional Facebook format, the new parents made another major announcement: They’ll put 99 percent of their Facebook shares, currently valued at a cumulative $45 billion, toward the new Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a foundation focused in large part on health and education.

The Facebook CEO has written openly about his and Chan’s pregnancy: In a July Facebook post, Zuckerberg detailed their lonely struggles in the wake of three miscarriages. He also hinted that having a kid might influence the couple’s philanthropy. “We’ve already been so fortunate for the opportunity to touch people’s lives around the world—Cilla as a doctor and educator, and me through this community and philanthropy,” Zuckerberg wrote. “Now we’ll focus on making the world a better place for our child and the next generation.”

As Facebook’s popularity (and revenue) has exploded, we’ve watched Zuckerberg mature into a thoughtful leader in business and philanthropy. He and Chan made the largest public charitable gift of 2013, when they gave 18 million Facebook shares valued at $990 million to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. In 2014, they donated $25 million to fight Ebola in West Africa. Zuckerberg has also signed the Giving Pledge, a campaign launched by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett to encourage the world’s uber-rich to give more than half their wealth to charity. (Today’s 99 percent announcement puts that figure to shame.)

Credit Chan, who began dating Zuckerberg while both were undergraduates at Harvard, with some of Zuckerberg’s evolution and much of the couple’s philanthropic direction. As a first-generation college student who came up through public schools, “education is an incredibly personal issue for me,” Chan told the Today show’s Savannah Guthrie. Zuckerberg’s first major donation was a $100 million gift to Newark’s public schools in 2010 (unfortunately, the money was largely squandered), and he and Chan have committed to giving $120 million to Bay Area public schools by way of their foundation, Startup: Education.

The child of Chinese-Vietnamese refugees, Chan has firsthand knowledge of the complex barriers immigrants face; her mom worked two jobs while Chan was a child, and Chan had to act as a translator for her grandparents, who didn’t speak English. For his part, Zuckerberg has thrown his money behind immigration reform via, a lobbying group he founded with other tech leaders in 2013. A major tenet of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative will be “promoting equality,” or “making sure everyone has access to… opportunities—regardless of the nation, families or circumstances they are born into. Our society must do this not only for justice or charity, but for the greatness of human progress.” The couple’s letter to Max calls out women, “underrepresented minorities,” and immigrants as communities that need more and better opportunities to thrive.

Chan and Zuckerberg have also used their wealth to advance health care. In 2014, they donated $5 million to a health center in East Palo Alto, California, allowing the clinic to double its annual patient load. Zuckerberg has said that Chan’s experiences as a medical student and now doctor helped inspire Facebook’s organ donor badge and resources; it’s easy to see how her intimate familiarity with health crises has influenced the couple’s philanthropic goals. The couple is directing part of their new foundation’s efforts toward childhood health and development, too. In a portion of their hello-baby missive, they touch on hunger, the school-to-prison pipeline, institutional racism and homophobia, and child abuse in an assessment of the ways students’ lives outside the classroom affect their achievement. Chan’s work as a pediatrician has no doubt shaped this segment of the couple’s philanthropic plan, just as Zuckerberg’s coding habit and Internet empire shaped the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s ambition to get everyone in the world online.

But today’s letter proves that parenthood has had the most formidable effect on Zuckerberg and Chan’s charitable giving. On Sunday, along with Bill Gates and other business titans, they launched the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, a clean-energy research initiative. There’s nothing like the birth of a child to inspire aggressive investment in the viable future of planet Earth. “We have a moral responsibility to all children in the next generation,” Chan and Zuckerberg wrote in their letter to Max. “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.”

Zuckerberg has already led by example when it comes to parental leave. He announced in November that he’ll take two months of paternity leave, a powerful testament to the importance of paid leave and fathers’ equal involvement from one of the world’s most influential executives. Studies have shown that men are more likely to take time off after the birth of their children if they see other men doing it. No word on whether seeing billionaires donate all their money to health, education, and clean energy can convince other billionaires to do the same, but Zuckerberg’s Gatesian evolution is an argument for the affirmative. If his philanthropic leanings and Chan’s influence continue on course, it’s good news for the future megarich of Max’s generation.