Dec 13, 2017 · 11 min read
Lessons in Philanthropy: Chan Zuckerberg Initiative Celebrates Two Years
Editor’s Note: This release has been updated as of 11/2/21.
The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is two years old! We’re so grateful to everyone who’s been a part of our journey so far to help advance human potential and promote equal opportunity.
Mark Zuckerberg: Two years ago, when our daughter Max was born, Priscilla and I wrote a letter about the world we hoped she and all children would grow up in. In that letter, we shared our plans to give 99% of our Facebook shares to help make that world a reality.
A lot has changed since then. Max is now running around the house telling jokes, or at least trying (“Knock knock.” “Who’s there, Max?” “Orange.” “Orange who?” “Glad to seeee you!” “Max, I’m not sure that’s how the joke goes.”) We now have a second daughter, August, and Beast is hanging in there.
We’ve also started to take the words in that letter and make them real. And we’ve learned a lot getting the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative off the ground.Going in, we knew we wanted to help take on some of the biggest challenges the next generation will face: improving education, advancing science, and fighting for justice and opportunity. But there was a huge amount we didn’t know and are still figuring out.
Our goal for this letter is to share some of what we’ve learned and talk about our next steps to help create a better world for our children. As always, we’re grateful to be on this journey with you.•••The most important lesson we’ve learned is to focus on problems we have some unique ability to help solve.Different philanthropies are good at different things. For example, our friends Bill and Melinda Gates have built an incredible foundation that is data-driven and has strong international relationships to support their work in public health.In this year’s letter, we’ll discuss two aspects of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative that have shaped our work so far: a truly long term approach and a technology mindset.A long term approach means helping the most talented leaders take on challenges in education, science, justice, and economic opportunity over 10 or 20 years, rather than just focusing on the biggest issues of today.One example is the current debate in the US about healthcare. Right now, there are two options: provide health insurance coverage to more people at higher cost, or provide less coverage at lower cost. But over a 20 year period, by helping scientists prevent and cure more diseases, our hope is to create a third option: provide everyone with great healthcare for less cost.
Another example is education. A lot of today’s debates pit district schools against charter schools, or reformers against unions. But over the long term, we need to build tools to empower every teacher at every school to provide personalized instruction and mentorship to every student. Instead of engaging in zero-sum debates, we think we’ll help more by building tools to help all teachers everywhere.
Our second theme is about technology. The magic of technology is that it can help social change scale faster. And because of Mark’s experience building a world-class engineering organization at Facebook, we are in a unique position to build a philanthropy with a great engineering team to help our partners scale their social change faster as well.
One challenge we’ve seen in education is that there are many brilliant teachers and school leaders who create new kinds of schools based on new models of learning — but those schools usually only serve hundreds of students, while most children still do not have access to them. There are very few examples of new school models that expand to thousands of schools today.
Our hope is that technology can help with this scaling challenge. We’re seeing promising signs of early success, where our partnership with Summit Public Schools has helped encode their teaching philosophy in tools that will be used in more than 300 district, charter, and private schools this fall.
Building a philanthropy that can build technology is useful because a lot of our partners don’t have this capability. When we first started working with Summit, I remember asking their founder, Dianne Tavenner, if I could meet her engineering team. She said: “Sure, I’ll introduce you to him.” When I asked her why she only had one engineer on her team, she responded that, as a teacher, she was lucky to have even one engineer.
Similarly, when we talk to scientists, they often tell us how much more they could do if they had 5 to 10 long term engineers working in their labs. Many of them have developed promising prototypes but don’t have the resources to build them out and share them with more labs to move the whole field forward. By building a world-class engineering team, we can help all our partners accelerate their progress.
You can start to see how these two aspects of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative — a long term approach and a technology mindset — shape all our work.
Next, let’s discuss how these values influence our work in the three areas we’re focused on: improving education, advancing science, and fighting for justice and opportunity.
Let’s start with improving education.
It’s hard to overstate how important education is for our children’s future. If you take a long term view, most economic issues today can be solved for our children and the next generation by dramatically improving our education system.
To imagine what a future education system might look like, consider the research of Benjamin Bloom showing that if you take an average student and give them one-to-one tutoring, they will perform two standard deviations better than other students learning by conventional techniques. In other words, if a student is at the 50th percentile in their class and they receive effective one-on-one tutoring, they jump on average to the 98th percentile.
That suggests we need an education system where all students receive the equivalent of an expert one-on-one tutor. That is what we mean when we refer to “personalized learning”. Rather than having every student sit in a classroom and listen to a teacher explain the same material at the same pace in the same way regardless of a student’s strengths, learning style and interests, research shows students will perform better if they can learn at their own pace, based on their own interests, and in a style that fits them.
For example, some students are stronger at math and weaker at history. Others learn better by reading than doing practice problems. So they should have an experience where teachers can easily show them material that helps them advance at their own pace and in the way they’ll learn best.
But delivering this experience is only the first step. Scaling this approach to every classroom is an important challenge as well. There are multiple dimensions to this problem, but we believe any scalable approach will involve giving teachers and students better tools.
An example is the personalized learning tool for teachers I mentioned above that we’ve built with Summit Public Schools. We’re going to build tools that include other schools’ approaches too. There are 25,000 middle and high schools in the US, and our goal is help many of them use these tools over the next decade.
Sometimes the personalized tools students need are as simple as eyeglasses. It’s hard to learn if you can’t see. That’s why we’re supporting Vision To Learn in their effort to get exams and glasses to every student who needs them.
Next, we’re working to accelerate science and help scientists cure, prevent, and manage all diseases in our children’s lifetime.
This may seem like an overly ambitious goal, but it’s a good example how we can have a great impact over the long term by developing new tools and technology.
There’s good reason to be optimistic. Ever since we started treating medicine as a science with controlled experiments about 80 years ago, our average life expectancy has steadily increased by 1/4 of a year ever year — from about 50 to over 75. This is the result of continuous progress on diseases ranging from smallpox to cancer to AIDS.
If we want to continue this trend, history of science suggests most breakthroughs occur when scientists get access to new tools that help them see and experiment in new ways. The telescope, the microscope, DNA sequencing — each unlocked more progress than their inventors imagined. Our strategy is to develop tools and technology to keep accelerating the pace of science.
One example is the Human Cell Atlas. Think of it like the periodic table of elements in chemistry, but for biology. There are more than 10,000 different types of cells in the human body, but no one has identified or examined the properties of all of them. Once the atlas is complete, it will be an important resource for helping scientists understand basic biology and how to get cells to interact to ultimately cure diseases.
We’re working on the Human Cell Atlas with teams around the world — including the European Bioinformatics Institute, the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and UC Santa Cruz. The idea is that by making this knowledge available to everyone in the scientific community, we’ll all make progress faster.
That’s also why we established the Biohub — a collaboration between scientists and engineers across Stanford, UCSF and Berkeley to develop tools to fight disease. We’re also working on a knowledge sharing and search engine for scientists called Meta, and we hope to work on more new tools next year.
Finally, we’re fighting for justice and opportunity so all this progress builds a better future for everyone.
A big part of this is advocating for policy change — another area where a long term approach and technology mindset can make a difference.
Change takes time. The campaign for marriage equality, for example, took more than 15 years. But today, most political campaigns are focused on the next election in a couple months or years rather than long term change. If we can help support long term campaigns in areas like criminal justice reform, immigration reform, and housing, we have a chance to make an even bigger difference.
Advocacy also requires building better tools and technology. Since most campaigns are only run for short periods, they don’t have time to do significant tools development. Even the longest political campaigns are usually only a couple of years and do not do much tool development themselves. We think there’s an opportunity to create social change by focusing on building tools for issue advocacy.
One issue we’re focused on is criminal justice reform.
The US has 5% of the world’s population but almost 25% of its prisoners. We put more people behind bars than any other country — and we do it despite evidence that a higher incarceration rate doesn’t make us safer.
Criminal justice is a local issue and many relevant policies are at the state and city levels. That means there are issues on the ballot in different places every year — which allows our partners and us to continuously iterate and evolve our approach.
Data is important because the first step to improving our criminal justice system is understanding it. Today, different counties maintain different records, making it hard to understand the full problem. That’s why we’re supporting organizations like Measures for Justice to make the system more transparent by tracking and sharing data county by county — giving attorneys, policy makers, and regular citizens the tools to search and analyze it.
We’re taking a similar approach to our work with local partners on immigration reform, housing, and systemic poverty and inequality. These are all challenges that can benefit from a longer time horizon and technology mindset.
Beyond these lessons, we’ve also learned about ourselves.
A lot of people ask us what it’s like to work with your spouse. The reality is we have very different experiences, as a doctor and educator, and an engineer and executive — so we learn a lot from each other. We’ve had to make some rules though, like not talking about work right before bed.
What makes us a good team is that we’re both optimistic about the future at a time when a lot of people don’t feel that way. We believe there are answers to even the toughest problems, and one of the things we’re most proud of is that we’ve built a team that believes that too.
Improving education, advancing science, and fighting for justice and opportunity are some of the most important challenges to solve for our children’s generation. That’s why we decided to jump in and start now.
Thanks for being on this journey with us, and we’re looking forward to continuing to share what we learn along the way.