Facebook CEO polishes image with $100M donation

Reports of Zuckerberg's donation to Newark schools revealed week before controversial movie opens

After taking some hits to his and his company's image in recent months, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg may have just bought $100 million worth of good will.

The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and other publications reported Wednesday night that Zuckerberg is donating $100 million to help the struggling school system in Newark, N.J. The official announcement is expected to be made on the Oprah Winfrey Show on Friday.

Facebook today declined comment on reports of the donation.

While the donation should bolster an ailing school system, it also might give a boost to Zuckerberg's tarnished image. In recent months, Facebook has taken it on the chin from users angered and frustrated over the site's privacy policies and tools. And in recent weeks, instant messages that Zuckerberg has since admitted sending while he was in college have come to light, giving users an image of a young man a bit drunk on power and cavalier with users' privacy.

Zuckerberg reportedly has been cringing in anticipation of the Oct. 1 release of the movie The Social Network, which is the story of the creation of Facebook and Zuckerberg's tumultuous rise to riches and global fame.

According to reports, the movie doesn't paint Zuckerberg in the best light but shows him to be a socially awkward Harvard student who created Facebook to meet girls. In a public speech, Zuckerberg was quoted as calling the movie "fiction."

In July, Facebook reached 500 million worldwide users. With his financial gains, he's also passed Apple's Steve Jobs on Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans. Earlier this month, Zuckerberg topped Vanity Fair's list of 100 Influential Leaders.

Could announcement of the $100 million donation be designed to polish Zuckerberg's image, just days before The Social Network hits screens nationwide?

"I hate to look any gift horse in the mouth," said Augie Ray, an analyst at market research firm Forrester. "While the timing of this donation might seem coordinated with the release of the film, The Social Network, Mark Zuckerberg's image has been in need of some aid for some time. He's been the target of several scathing books and plenty of angry blog posts about his opinions on personal privacy and Facebook's privacy settings. I'm inclined to feel this is part of a longer-term effort for Zuckerberg to give back to others, while improving his reputation rather than a specific broadside at the upcoming movie."

Brad Shimmin, an analyst with Current Analysis, said the timing of the donation is tough to look past, despite what a boon the donation will be for Newark students.

"Regardless of what the truth may be regarding the motivations behind the timing of this donation, the perception that this was planned as a means of countering the rumored negative depiction in the upcoming film about Mr. Zuckerberg cannot be overlooked or ignored," he added. "The best thing he could do would be to demonstrate his commitment to the Facebook user community through continued actions to improve security and privacy, and to create transparency into Facebook's business practices."

But maybe people who doubt Zuckerberg's motives are simply cynics, said Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group.

"Well, $100 million is expensive PR," Enderle said. "I actually think he is trying to give back, as he could get much of the same value for $1 million ... Wouldn't it be better for these folks to put their money into schools than into the super homes, jets or mega yachts they normally fund? In the end, the why shouldn't matter as much as the what, and he is doing a good thing here."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

This story, "Facebook CEO polishes image with $100M donation" was originally published by Computerworld.

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