Chan Zuckerberg Initiative Builds Political Muscle for Philanthropic Work

SAN FRANCISCO — The Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, have vowed to put their enormous wealth toward philanthropic causes. Now the couple are putting infrastructure in place to make sure their money and efforts will make an impact on policy as well.

Mr. Zuckerberg and Dr. Chan have hired a top political operative to lead the next phase of their philanthropic work at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the limited liability company they set up in 2015 to conduct charitable efforts. David Plouffe, who managed Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and is chief adviser and a board member at Uber, is leaving the ride-hailing company to join the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative as president of policy and advocacy.

In addition, Mr. Zuckerberg and Dr. Chan are forming a public policy board of former government officials and other experts in the fields of education and science. The new board will be led by Kenneth Mehlman, who managed President George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign and is now head of global public affairs at Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, the private equity firm. Mr. Mehlman will volunteer part of his time to the new board, which is recruiting other members who will also serve in a part-time capacity.

The additions underline how Mr. Zuckerberg and Dr. Chan are pushing to give their philanthropic work — which has focused on education, science and curing disease — a greater voice in Washington and among movements and advocacy groups across the country. The couple’s clout stems primarily from their substantial fortune; when they announced they would give 99 percent of their Facebook shares to charitable causes, their holdings were worth more than $45 billion at the time.

“You can make change, but in order for it to be sustainable, you need to build a movement to support it,” Mr. Zuckerberg said in an interview. “No amount of private research or philanthropy is going to shift that. At the end of the day, the government has far more resources than any individual organization does.”

Mr. Zuckerberg and Dr. Chan, who live only a few miles from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s office in Palo Alto, Calif., are regularly involved in its direction and major decisions. The couple have identified several main causes, including curing all disease, to which they have pledged $3 billion, and changing the way children are educated through personalized learning, under which teaching is more tailored to each child.

In his new role, Mr. Plouffe will run the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s team of a few dozen people on a day-to-day basis. Mr. Plouffe described the job in terms similar to a campaign effort.

“Curing disease, improving education through personalized learning and building technology and tools to help organizations reach their full potential are areas with widespread support and massive potential for mobilization, great storytelling and smart policy engagement,” he wrote in a Facebook post.

Travis Kalanick, Uber’s chief executive, described Mr. Plouffe’s departure as amicable. Mr. Plouffe will remain on Uber’s board and continue advising Mr. Kalanick.

Mr. Zuckerberg and Dr. Chan unveiled the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative not long after the 2015 birth of their daughter, Maxima Chan Zuckerberg, known as Max. In a letter written to her that was posted on Facebook at the time, Mr. Zuckerberg and Dr. Chan outlined several reasons for directing their philanthropy toward “advancing human potential and promoting equality” for those in Max’s generation.

Almost immediately, however, Mr. Zuckerberg and Dr. Chan came under fire for the organizational structure of the initiative. Under a limited liability company, they are bound by fewer rules when it comes to directing their assets than they would be in other philanthropic vehicles. The structure also provides certain tax benefits. The couple have used money in the L.L.C. to invest in start-ups related to their educational and scientific interests.

Mr. Plouffe and Mr. Mehlman join other notable appointments. In May, the couple hired James H. Shelton III, a former deputy secretary of the Department of Education, to oversee efforts in education. Cori Bargmann, a neuroscientist formerly of Rockefeller University, was tapped in September as president of science. Brian Pinkerton, a former Amazon executive, was named chief technology officer in October.

Mr. Zuckerberg’s earlier efforts in policy included Fwd.us, an advocacy group focused on immigration reform, a popular issue in Silicon Valley because of the high number of engineers that come from outside the United States to join technology companies. The group’s efforts largely stalled after President Obama shelved plans for an immigration overhaul in 2014.

Mr. Zuckerberg, who was the public face of Fwd.us, has since distanced himself from the effort and has said he was only one member of a large group of supporters.

Still, Mr. Zuckerberg said he still wanted to spur change at a national level.

“Our government, at the federal and state level, spends 50 times more on treating people who are sick than we spend finding cures so that people don’t get sick in the first place,” Mr. Zuckerberg said in the interview. “That’s a thing that I think needs to shift, and that the only way to do that is through advocacy.”