Peter St. Onge

Persevering when we give

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife announced the birth of their daughter Tuesday.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife announced the birth of their daughter Tuesday. Mark Zuckerberg, via AP

If you didn’t think it was possible for someone to be criticized for giving $45 billion to charitable causes, you must not know of this thing called Twitter.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced Tuesday that he and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, will donate 99 percent of their Facebook shares to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a newly created philanthropic organization.

In a letter to their newborn daughter Max, Zuckerberg said the organization would be focused on health and education issues. For everyone else, Zuckerberg explained that instead of going the traditional route of setting up a charitable trust or family foundation, he would gradually move his money into a limited liability company (LLC) that he would control.

Twitter was quick to respond, and it was its usual charming self. Tweeters called Zuckerberg a scammer and a showoff. They riffed on the beauty of setting up a charity so you can give to yourself.

Some of the criticism was standard social media – snarkiness mixed with the antipathy people tend to have toward the incredibly wealthy. A lot of it was more investigative, an exploration of how Zuckerberg might gain a tax advantage by structuring his charity as a non-charity.

All of which seemed to ignore that any financial advantage he might gain would fall billions short of what he’d save by, you know, not giving any of the money away.

What Zuckerberg is actually buying this week is something far less countable. It’s control.

Because he’ll work through an LLC, Zuckerberg has more say over how his donations are spent. He can even give to for-profit companies, if he feels that’s the best path to helping people.

Ultimately, though, even that structure has its limits. Zuckerberg knows the same things most people eventually learn when they give intimately: You can’t control how things work out.

Five years ago, Zuckerberg famously invested $100 million into the struggling Newark, N.J., school system. The money, however, went mostly to consultants and the salaries and pensions of teachers and administrators. As detailed in Dale Russakoff’s fine book “The Prize,” the gift was a nine-figure failure, a victim of the same bureaucratic and political ills it was supposed to fix.

If you’ve given at least a little of your money or your time, you’ve probably learned a similar lesson at some point. Sometimes, your generosity is squandered. Or people don’t appreciate it. Or they feel entitled to it.

It’s a dynamic that’s also at the center of our debate over public assistance. Conservatives who complain about welfare tend to point to those who abuse the system or aren’t interested in using it in the way it was intended – to help people eventually help themselves.

And that does happen. People sometimes just want the money we give, not the help. And some of that money goes to people who don’t need it.

The best we can do – both publicly and privately – is to be smarter with how we help. That’s what Zuckerberg seems to be trying this week, and instead of wondering what ill he might be up to, maybe we should admire the perseverance of giving he shows.

Because the alternative is to keep our dollars – or billions of dollars – and decide not to get burned. It’s to forget that helping isn’t about being the answer, but offering someone another chance to find theirs.

Peter: pstonge

@charlotteobserver.com; @saintorange

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