October 7, 2011; Source: Star-Ledger | Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg made quite a splash last year when he donated $100 million to help fix Newark’s troubled schools not only because of the size of the gift but its promise of involving Newark residents in deciding how the money would be spent—funds that the city would match. 

According to Joan Whitlow of the Star-Ledger’s NJ.com, that promise of “citizen-centered” involvement has fallen by the wayside with the announcement that the Foundation for Newark’s Future will be dispensing Zuckerberg funds.  Whitlow reports that the foundation’s board has three voting and one nonvoting members, only one of whom is from Newark, and that’s Mayor Cory Booker.  The only way to get on the board, according to Gregory Taylor, the foundation’s president and CEO, is to donate at least $10 million because the foundation has to “raise enough to match the original $100 million.”  

While Whitlow concedes that people who put up private money have the right to do with it what they want, she argues that “promises were made in Newark” and those, too, are important to honor when decisions about struggling public schools are on the table.   She notes, “The mayor was pretty articulate and insistent…[that] Newarkers were going to decide…how the money would be spent.”  An organization—PENewark—was established to organize residents’ involvement and, according to a HuffPo blog post by Booker, did hold “11 large-scale community forums, 25 mini-forums,” and also, “knocked on 66,000 doors, received more than 20,000 surveys and contacted 45,000 community members in total.”

Whitlow argues, however, that the “the PENewark survey…was so weak, it had to be redone by Rutgers and New York University.”  She also attended some of the meetings, during which the energy of citizens—which “should’ve been harnessed”—was “not used and then extinguished.” As she writes, “The outpouring of people put lie to the idea that Newark parents, teachers and students don’t care. They wanted to roll up their sleeves and work for the long haul. I heard organizers asking for just that kind of commitment. No one said, ‘Tell us some stuff, then go away and let the $10 million men take it from there.’”

The foundation’s response?  During a Star-Ledger editorial board meeting this week, Taylor said “letting the people have their say is not how professional philanthropy works.”  He said there would be an advisory board formed, that the foundation hopes to have a chairman for it by the end of next month and that the group will include Newark people. The advisers will help shape the broad outline of what the FNF supports.  It will not, however, have a say in who the foundation supports or will be able to present suggestions to the board, Taylor said.

Whitlow and others think that’s “not enough.”   She argues that “if the goal is to improve education in Newark, the board should be expanded to include voting members from and of Newark, with a direct say in how the money is spent. That fund needs people who have a sense of what has worked and already failed, people who have a stake in the outcome. The board needs balance against any preconceived notions about education that might motivate someone to give $10 million, or more.”

This is a compelling example of how philanthropic institutions are having to grapple with the cultural shifts that technology is driving—including transparency, collaboration and partnering with “real people” in “real communities” to solve complex problems.  Whether and to what extent this particular foundation decides to entertain new ways to do its job remains to be seen, but one thing is clear to Whitlow and others in Newark:  It may be their money, but “it’s Newark’s kids,” so where does the public fit when it comes to making funding decisions that affect those kids?—CMG