Zuckerberg Donates $100 Million to Newark: More Than Just PR?

Mark Zuckerberg donates $100 million to Newark public schools (or about 20 cents for every individual on Facebook).

Zuckerberg Donates $100 Million to Newark: More Than Just PR?

There are times when a politician or high-profile corporate executive makes a gesture that seems specifically calculated for damage control—usually it comes across as disingenuous and does as much damage as it does good.

But usually those gestures don’t come with a $100 million dollar price tag.

No matter how well-timed, no matter how sappy the press conference orchestrated to announce the news, there comes a point when the gesture is so large it’s hard not to think it took some genuine commitment to get there.

Sure this gigantic philanthropic effort is a little too perfectly timed with the high-profile release of the supposedly critical “The Social Network.” And yes, there’s an official Oprah episode scheduled to announce the news. It’s enough to raise a skeptical eyebrow on all of us. Still, on reading this news yesterday my other eyebrow—the incredulous one—raised as I asked, “Wait, how much?”

$100 million works out to about 20 cents for every individual on Facebook. Some estimates place Mr. Zuckerberg’s personal wealth at around $2 billion, which would make this $100 million donation about 5 percent of his total wealth. Other estimates such as the just-announced Forbes 400 place him north of $6 billion, which would make it a smaller percentage of his stockpile. Still, much of that wealth is based in Zuckerberg’s ownership stake of Facebook, not a measure of liquid cash. When it comes down to it, $100 million is a lot of cake.

If he was just looking for PR spin, Zuckerberg probably could have secured an Oprah appearance and a news blitz for much cheaper. How much would it have taken to turn heads? $10 million? $20 million? Given that the entire district’s annual operating budget is just $800 million, Zuckererg’s $100 million commitment does seem designed to enact actual change in addition to mere PR adoration.

According to the New York Times, Zuckerberg’s donation will allow mayor Cory Booker to reclaim some control of the school system, which was wrested away from the city by the state government in 1995 when the school system was declared a failure. Zuckerberg’s donation will allow the mayor to choose a new superintendent and redesign the system’s administrative operations, although the state will retain the right to take back control should Booker’s changes prove counterproductive.

Booker, for all his praise in the press, remains admirably committed to Newark’s local challenges—he’s used the power of his charisma to benefit Newark rather than to propel himself to national prominence. In partnering with Booker, Zuckerberg champions the little guy over the state establishment. It’s an apt association for Zuckerberg, whose company has raised concerns about being too big and bureaucratic to be trusted with the privacy of its users—the world’s collective “little guys.” There’s a certain Robin Hood archetype underlying this story that comes as a pleasant surprise.

In the end, this was a gesture Zuckerberg didn’t need to make. User adoption on Facebook hasn’t slowed a peep despite the negative press he and the company have received in recent months. But maintaining a benevolent public image at the top his gigantic company can only serve him and Facebook’s users well. Perhaps Steve Jobs should take note. I only hope Zuckerberg won’t curb this behavior once the tenor of the press turns his way. But for now, I’m sold. Consider me on Team Zuckerberg.