New Zuckerberg-Chan Pledge a Threat to Democracy?

Print Share on LinkedIn More

December 1, 2015; Washington Post

Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that the size of the Zuckerberg-Chan pledge was larger than total private giving in the U.S. in 2014. It is not. The pledge is $45 billion against $358 billion in all U.S. giving. This change is now reflected in the article.


In a letter on Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, announced both the birth of their first child and their intention to give away Facebook shares currently reported to be worth $45 billion. That sum, by the way, must be seen in the context of the $358 billion collectively given away last year in the United States—and that total was an all-time high. He will, of course, not disburse it all at once, but still…

This re-surfaces our concern voiced earlier this year about the effects of a growing wealth gap on our democracy, especially at a moment when so many public systems are integrating philanthropic dollars that have the potential to diminish the voices of others. Such philanthropic approaches smack of colonialism and carry with them an anti-democratic assumption that can only perpetuate and worsen inequality. Zuckerberg, of course, has had the experience of trying to buy an outcome in such a system with Newark, New Jersey’s schools.

And, indeed, even in what we can see of public vs. private social expenditures, we can see from this chart from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that the United States has a bigger issue in this regard than most countries this report examined.


Yet the focus of the Chan-Zuckerberg family’s giving is declared to be “advancing human potential” and “promoting equality.” In the letter, the couple spends quite a bit of time laying out the importance of the approach in making any of this happen.

  1. We must make long-term investments over 25, 50, or even 100 years. The greatest challenges require very long time horizons and cannot be solved by short-term thinking.
  2. We must engage directly with the people we serve. We can’t empower people if we don’t understand the needs and desires of their communities.
  3. We must build technology to make change. Many institutions invest money in these challenges, but most progress comes from productivity gains through innovation.
  4. We must participate in policy and advocacy to shape debates. Many institutions are unwilling to do this, but progress must be supported by movements to be sustainable.
  5. We must back the strongest and most independent leaders in each field. Partnering with experts is more effective for the mission than trying to lead efforts ourselves.
  6. We must take risks today to learn lessons for tomorrow. We’re early in our learning and many things we try won’t work, but we’ll listen and learn and keep improving.

These points do not necessarily represent a coherent set of values strong enough to counter the enormous financial footprint of this pledge. We are frankly most interested in the third point, and we wonder about the potential conflict between that and the sixth point. As we all know, sometimes so-called independent experts and the people do not agree about what is in their best interests. We’d like to see redraft of this with an acknowledgement of the inherent and enormous danger in this massive gift and a prioritizing of the second over the fifth in any area of grantmaking that occurs in relationship to democratic systems or systems where top-down (or even expert-driven) decision-making is a abrogation of the decision-making of those who will have to live with the consequences.

Putting this together with his announcement two weeks ago that his new philosophy about giving was to “move slow and build things,” it appears that the Chan-Zuckerberg family is considering the question of who will drive the bus on transformational community change. That, after all, is a question quite central to any version of equality most of us would want to be a part of, and when you have $45 billion to throw around, non-colonial use of that would take a heaping helping of systematically adopted humility.—Ruth McCambridge

  • Robkall-opednews

    Your concerns are very legitimate. So much money and power can be dangerous simply because of its size. My hope is that Chan-Zuckerberg will take the same approach to philanthropy and the desire to make positive change happen that Zuckerberg has taken to Facebook– investing heavily in developing bottom-up technology and approaches that create new models of helping make positive change happen. Paul Hawken has said there are over a million social and environmental justice organizations at work. Hopefully, Chan-Zuckerberg will develop robust, bottom-up, systems-thinking approaches that maximize change while minimizing the heavy handed top-down adverse side effects of great power.

  • I’d rather have philanthropists like Bill Gates and, now, Mark Zuckerberg work on solving big problems than politicians and bureaucrats. These successful entrepreneurs understand how to measure performance and how to massively scale activities when appropriate. I find the public/private split in the U.S. reassuring rather than troubling. It wouldn’t surprise me if the 20% social expenditure level in the US is as efficient as the higher spending levels in countries where the government does most of it.

  • Jack Blumenfrucht

    The Bill Gates, Warren Buffets and now Zuckerbergs/Chans of this world have so far contributed close to USD 1 trillion to improve education and health care worldwide, having in the process saved many lives and transformed and improved the lives of millions!!! Moreover, these contributions have no religious/political strings attached. Yes, all above contributors insist – rightly so – on a hands-on approach to ensure their money (by the way, considering Zuckerberg’s USD 45 billion donation throw-away money is totally absurd and outrageous and does not say much about the writer) is not wasted as it the case for many NGOs and most Government and UN related organizations.

  • Julia

    I share your concerns about the negative consequences of large, ideologically-driven “donations” – whether set up as a foundation or an LLCs.

    We need to look no further than the damage that the Walton family, Bill and Melinda Gates, Eli Broad and other billionaires have done to public education through their ideologically driven privatization initiatives!

    Polling data confirms that the very wealthy have more selfish economic beliefs than most Americans and they are certainly not better informed or better able to make wise policy decisions than a democratic policy process.

    We should be taxing wealth more, to help narrow the growing economic inequality. And, we should be limiting the ability of individuals, corporations and organizations to buy public policies through strict campaign finance laws.

    Neither economic inequality not a purchased political system are good for our society.