Is “a letter to our daughter” any better than a press release?

By Joy Portella, President, Minerva Strategies —

In the week since Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan announced that they will give away 99 percent of their Facebook shares – about $45 billion – everybody in the world of philanthropy has opinions and questions. What causes will the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative champion? Will it engage in lobbying? Will it turn a profit for the Chan-Zuckerberg clan?

Against the backdrop of these many questions, I haven’t heard much discussion about how the Initiative was actually communicated to the world. The news broke via Mark Zuckerberg’s December 1st Facebook post that simultaneously announced the birth of the couple’s daughter Max. The post was accompanied by a multi-page document called “A letter to our daughter” written directly to Max – though it is surely intended for a broader audience – that offered both heartfelt sentiments of new parents and a rough outline of the family’s philanthropic pursuits.

The letter and post garnered more than 1.5 million likes, as well as more than 112,000 comments from luminaries including Melinda Gates, Sheryl Sandberg, and Shakira. One day later, Zuckerberg posted a two-minute video of him and Chan discussing their excitement about nascent parenthood and philanthropy. The video was viewed more than 4.7 million times, and got nearly 267,000 likes – not as robust as the response to the letter, but not too shabby.

While it may not be surprising that the CEO and co-founder of Facebook announced a major philanthropic initiative on his own wildly popular social media platform, it highlights the incredible shift that’s happened in news in the past decade. This is a shift that even the sometimes shy and staid world of philanthropy cannot avoid.

Let’s look at the last philanthropic announcement of Chan-Zuckerberg magnitude. Almost ten years ago, in June of 2006, Warren Buffett announced that he would give away 85 percent of his Berkshire Hathaway stock to five foundations, with most of it – about $30 billion – going to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. I was privileged to be involved in the announcement of that gift, which was done in what I’ll respectfully call “old-school style.” There was an advance exclusive with Carol Loomis at Fortune, a stately event for philanthropic influencers at the New York Public Library, and a big press conference at an NYC hotel with Mr. Buffett and the Gateses.

Social media did not exist. Facebook was barely out of Zuckerberg’s Harvard dorm room. Twitter didn’t launch until one month later, and forget about Instagram, Snapchat, or Periscope. Blogging was barely on people’s radar. Traditional media and all of its iterations – from the New York Times to the Seattle Times – were the megaphone to the world.

A decade later, it’s a whole different ballgame. But does a new platform – or set of platforms – really make a difference? The answer is yes for a few reasons:

You can get more personal: Almost every major philanthropist talks about their giving in personal and sometimes philosophical terms. Mike Bloomberg wants to test data-driven, groundbreaking ideas that governments can scale.  Sean Parker envisions a world where hacker-style philanthropy can drive major changes. Warren Buffett got inspired to turbocharge his philanthropy following his wife’s death. Having journalists tease out these narrative – or even communicating them in the form of a mainstream media opinion piece – is a far different matter from writing “a letter to our daughter.”

The Chan Zuckerberg announcement is, like most communications on social media, oozing with personal insight and information. This isn’t a press release. It’s a private correspondence for the couple’s worldwide circle of friends.

Or is it? Another plus of the social media age is that you can control your own content and its dissemination. The Chan and Zuckerberg Initiative announcement is a well-crafted, thoughtful but also highly calculated communication that would make old-school PR pros drool. The loving and voluminous responses on Facebook only reinforced this impression. The combined effect of the Facebook post, accompanying letter, and video was to not just make an announcement, but to tell us all about the couple’s worldview and how they hope to make it a reality via their philanthropy.

You can fudge the details (to a point): Back in 2006, Warren Buffett faced a battery of questions from Carol Loomis and other journalists about exactly how his philanthropy would work. Why was he giving the bulk of his fortune to the Gates Foundation? Where would that leave his family’s foundations? What would it mean for his company? How would the transfer of wealth happen?

Chan and Zuckerberg didn’t address any similar questions or concerns in their announcement, which includes many lofty statements about curing disease, harnessing clean energy, and making the Internet accessible to everyone. That all sounds good but the couple never mapped out concrete plans or steps. I’ll cut them slack because they’re just getting started, but it’s also noteworthy that there were no third parties involved in their announcement to ask questions.

Until there were. Another trick of the social media world is that once the cat’s out of the bag, it’s out and running all over the place. In this case, that means that traditional media did loop around and ask many tough questions about the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, particularly related to the fact that it will be an LLC and not a foundation. Answers are still being sorted out.

It also means that everyone on Twitter or Facebook or Medium can have and express an opinion on the couple’s philanthropy. Depending on who’s in your social media echo chamber, you might think that the Chan-Zuckerberg duo is devious, anti-democratic tax dodgers or remarkable altruists.

This all adds up to loud calls for information and accountability that sometimes run counter to the extreme message control that social media makes possible. That’s a new and different conundrum for public-facing philanthropists. This brave new world makes it more important than ever for people who are giving away huge sums of money to communicate about how and why they spend it.