On Promise, a P.S. to Max

Your Dad wrote a special letter making a wonderful promise to celebrate your birth: your parents will give away 99% of their Facebook shares - about 45 billion dollars currently - to help other children of your generation have healthy lives and become better educated. We all need educated, productive citizens to make our society work so this is a very important promise.

From Newark to The Primary School

Of course, sometimes the easiest part of a promise is saying it. Actually making good on it can be harder, and your parents have their share of skeptics.

Some naysayers point to the failure of your Dad's $100 million initiative to turn around the public school system in Newark. Your Dad admitted at the time he was new to philanthropy and education. Newark proved to be a tough lesson. He has seen -

$20M for consultants and special services
+ $50M for a new teachers' contract (your Dad believing teachers deserve good pay and bonuses for performance)
EQUAL static student scores and closed schools

Now, your Dad and Mom are taking a more bottom - up approach. They are working on The Primary School which bears the strong imprint of your Mom's experiences as a tutor, a teacher, and a pediatrician in underserved communities. The School will open this Fall and include "wraparound services" -- health and dental care, mental health services -- for pre-schoolers and their families from low-income environments. It is setting out to nurture children's brains from birth and overcome the hurdles to development that can come from a low-income environment. Families will be included so that children are nurtured at home as well as at school.

I am not an educator - I tutored in Boston like your Mom and worked with hearing-impaired children. Instinctively, I am comfortable, for purposes of this discussion, accepting that sparking a child's mental capabilities at an early age is critical and that other aspects of social infrastructure are necessary. That said, your parents are best positioned to assess and integrate proven elements of similar efforts such as Head Start and the Promise Neighborhoods' extension of the Harlem Children's Zone. Your parents can perform a real service by sorting through various efforts to date and developing an effective, self-sustaining model to replicate.

Transformative Philanthropy

What I have spent considerable time thinking about are for-profit tools for social enterprises, and I believe there such tools can help your parents achieve their mission and simultaneously transform philanthropy.

Your parents already have taken an important first step by using a limited liability company (or "L.L.C.") - the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative - instead of a non-profit. Skeptics think your parents aren't really going to give their money away because they are using a for-profit. That is not correct. The L.L.C. gives your parents the option to solve problems by bringing the full force of the for-profit sector to bear in addition to the usual non-profit scenarios. It may be the better solution in certain situations, generate funds to make social enterprises self-sustaining, and, importantly, allow your parents to control mission.

Having chosen the L.L.C., your parents may want to consider using a new tool known as a benefit corporation for projects. The Primary School has been created as a non-profit. If it becomes successful, they may want to replicate the model in other communities as a for-profit benefit corporation. Such an entity has the potential to bridge the divide between those concerned with social justice and those favoring limited government.

A benefit corporation is a for-profit entity with a public purpose, often serving underserved communities. Projects improving health care or education in underserved communities generally are within the statutory missions of benefit corporations, making The Primary School model a natural fit.

Resources can be allocated in a benefit corporation to achieve mission and spread among stakeholders, beyond merely shareholders as in a traditional corporation. So resources could be expended to implement the wrap-around strategy, perhaps even achieving efficiencies of scale, and teachers could be paid a good salary. Lavish infrastructure and administrative salaries could be avoided

Investors would understand from the beginning that resources were going to be used primarily for public purposes - education and health care, rather than a high rate of return. They might be average citizens interested in establishing Primary Schools in their own communities. Or other philanthropists might join the effort - as your parents did with Bill Gates' private climate investment fund to accelerate research and development of renewable energy and sustainable technologies.

Your parents also are interested in personalized learning. They may be able to develop this technology to use in their School or other institutions. It could be channeled through a benefit corporation, serving as both a problem-solver and a job-creator. It could become a revenue source, generating funds to address other educational problems and adding an "evergreen" element to your parents' philanthropy.

"Promise" can mean simply saying you will do something, like your parents' to give away their Facebook shares. It also can mean a "cause or ground for hope", which is what your parents' promise gives other children and us as a society. The "promise" of your parents' promise is exciting and worth watching. If they can get it right and replicate self-sustaining models, their promise not only will solve an educational challenge that goes to the heart of our ability to be a productive society, but also will transform philanthropy.