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Chan Zuckerberg Philanthropy Reboot Will Build on Lessons Learned

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Five years after Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s first major foray into philanthropy–the broadly criticized $100 million donation for improvement of Newark, New Jersey’s public schools–the couple in November rolled out the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative that will focus on public policy advocacy, investments in for-profit companies and contributions to nonprofit entities.

This time they will build on what they learned from their earlier endeavor, Chan told The Chronicle of Philanthropy in an interview. ”We’ve learned that we must keep listening, learning, and improving,” Chan said. “That’s why we’re starting young, so that we can get better over time.”

Chan said they would work with experts on personalized learning, curing diseases, connecting people and strengthening communities. As well, she said, they planned to hire leaders in each focus area to guide the work.

The five-year Newark program, which is about to expire, drew critical comments almost from the outset.

“We see no engagement of markets or what Zuckerberg knows as an entrepreneur—social networking, markets, market growth, market traction, engaging of the next generation,” Suzanne Muchin, founder of the consulting firm ROI, told ThinkAdvisor in 2010. “There’s nothing here that’s other than money and traditional checkbook philanthropy.”

Muchin asked rhetorically at the time: “What is the strategy here, because you’re trying to fix a broken system? And anytime you go after system change, only one of the levers is money.”

Subsequent news reports spoke of disputes over how the money was spent, lack of transparency and public input into efforts to reform the school system, and the role of charter schools. In June, NJ Spotlight reported on large grants going to consultants, among other points of controversy surrounding the project.

“Zuckerberg flubbed the first Newark donation,” Eileen Heisman, chief executive of National Philanthropic Trust, told ThinkAdvisor in a recent interview (NPT’s Heisman: Why Donor-Advised Funds Are Surging). However, Heisman was optimistic about his and Chan’s new initiative. “He’s smart and has learned from his mistakes.”

Zuckerberg said in a video cited by The Chronicle, “You are not going to be perfect” at philanthropy work the first time around. “we will learn lessons over time and hopefully get better and better.”

Chan said in her interview that she and Zuckerberg had taken important lessons from their early work.

“For example, we must make very long-term investments—great challenges like improving and personalizing education, curing diseases and building stronger and more equal communities require time horizons of 25, 50 or even 100 years,” she said.