If anyone understands the power of disruptive technology, it’s Mark Zuckerberg. And yet when it comes to solving the toughest issues of our time, the Facebook (FB) chief seems remarkably reliant on money. As he prepares to host his first fundraiser on Feb. 13 for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie—a man whose popularity has already sparked millions in donations—Zuckerberg might consider the lessons of his own business. Few pursuits demonstrate the power of social media like U.S. politics.
In both presidential elections, Barack Obama outmaneuvered rivals in tapping Zuckerberg’s network, from his Facebook town hall to a series of pages on the site aimed at different demographic segments. Meanwhile, people like Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) Chief Executive Officer Meg Whitman and former World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) head Linda McMahon proved that money alone doesn’t win elections: Both lost political bids to opponents who spent less to campaign.
That doesn’t mean Facebook’s founder shouldn’t stage a party in Palo Alto to support his friend, even if most attendees aren’t directly affected by a race in New Jersey. But it’s worth asking where else Zuckerberg could focus his efforts. He obviously cares deeply about education, having donated $100 million to Newark schools in 2010. Zuckerberg admires Christie’s policies on education, from vouchers that promote school choice to a law that makes it easier to fire underperforming teachers. While critics may question how much Zuckerberg’s money is helping a system that already spends $22,000 a year per student, there’s no question it’s brought national attention to the issues.
And what’s he doing to leverage Facebook’s strengths to disrupt education? Nothing. All those brilliant minds in Menlo Park, Calif.—the trailblazers, hackers, and pioneers—are pouring their energy into changing the world, and yet not one of them appears involved in changing education through their jobs. The company has no formal initiative to foster blue-sky thinking on fixing education, no bold push to get employees excited about the issue. Facebook doesn’t even have a formal mentoring program or philanthropic initiative that could attack it in a different way. (A company spokesman has said employees do a lot on their own, much like Zuckerberg.)
What a lost opportunity. Maybe Zuckerberg is worried people might feel he’s using company resources to promote some pet project. Who cares? It’s not as if he’s asking employees to plot Christie’s campaign or build buzz for the New Jersey Devils as they make their next run at the Stanley Cup. Who doesn’t want to fix schools, especially young employees whose classroom memories remain fresh? Instead, Zuckerberg has hired some 4,500 of the boldest, brightest people on the planet, inspired them with the promise they’ll create a more open, networked world (or get rich trying)—and then bypassed that brain trust in trying to solve an immense and complex challenge.
What could he do? To start, take a page from established players like IBM (IBM), Citigroup (C), and General Electric (GE) that have leveraged their people and their business strengths to help disadvantaged groups with access to technology, loans, and clean water. Encourage those do-good instincts on staff and dare to make education a priority. Instead of Mark Zuckerberg tackling the problems in education, have Facebook take on that challenge, too. Host a summit, hold member competitions, award prizes to school innovators inside and outside the company. Tackle sensitive topics such as cyberbullying, sexual predators, privacy, and marketing to children through education initiatives or forums. Set up a summer institute where disadvantaged high school kids from across the country, or around the world, can learn to make apps, write software, or use social media networks to help their home communities. Be a bold corporate citizen. If that leads to new revenue streams or recruiting avenues for Facebook, all the better.
Facebook’s technology and network could transform activities from mentoring to literacy education. Start with an old-style approach. AT&T (T) employees have spent more than a million hours mentoring at-risk kids, according to the company. It’s an exercise that can be as eye-opening for employees as for the kids themselves. AT&T’s chief sustainability officer, Charlene Lake, once told me about three high school juniors who shadowed her in Texas; two didn’t know what they’d do after graduation, while the third was shocked to learn she had to go to college to be a teacher. Nobody had told her that before. Imagine when the word “college” first entered the vocabulary of most Facebook employees. And (no offense to AT&T) who wouldn’t want to be mentored by a Facebook employee? Why not set up a program for teachers to understand how their students are using social networks?
In the meantime, Zuckerberg gets to experience the real-world frustrations of spending millions to transform a system that’s failing most of its students. He’s right to try, just as Governor Christie and Newark’s teachers are trying to figure out the best way to fix a problem that has many different causes. But, by making his main contribution a monetary one, he’s undermining the power he could bring to the table.
The Facebook page for the Foundation for Newark’s Future, the group that’s channeling Zuckerberg’s donation into Newark schools, has a paltry 27 “likes” and a stream of ho-hum links. It makes you wonder what kind of network that organization could build if it had a boost from someone with more than 700,000 “likes”—such as, say, Mark Zuckerberg. Sure, it has $100 million. Too bad it seems cut off from the network its founder can bring.