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August 18, 2020; Washington Post

When Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Dr. Priscilla Chan became philanthropists, they did it in their own big way, pledging to use 99 percent of the Facebook shares they owned, currently worth an estimated $80 billion or more, to fuel their new calling. In forming the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), they created a limited liability corporation (LLC) rather than a charitable foundation to give them “the flexibility to give to the organizations that will do the best work.” They saw it as a way to take risks old-style philanthropists would not take; a sign of the entrepreneurial, unfettered style that marked a generation of new billionaires.

Nitasha Tiku’s recent article in the Washington Post gives us insight into how, in this national moment of reckoning with racism, the effectiveness of CZI’s approach has been compromised by its close identification with Zuckerberg and Chan. The search for the best work falls by the wayside when cultural limitations of understanding conflict with the ability to take on the risks that are inherent in the work. This is now being called out internally at home base.

Some Black employees say they don’t have equal opportunities or recognition for their work at CZI. Although 25 percent of CZI’s senior leaders are from historically underrepresented groups, the letter notes that there are relatively few Black vice presidents or directors. Current and former Black executives said CZI needs to work on racial inclusion and equity but stressed that Black employees were not treated differently because of their race.

So, CZI, like many organizations, is struggling with its lack of diversity and the need to make sure people of color are represented throughout the organization and have power, influence, and access to careers with growth. Recognizing there is more to be done on this front, the company’s chief operating officer, Josué Estrada told the Post, “As a growing start-up philanthropy, we need to build systems that ensure we are supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion within our own organization.”

But this isn’t where the conflicts within CZI are most telling. More problematic, and reflective of the personalized nature of the work of many of this new generation of mega-philanthropists, is reconciling the challenge of using these huge financial resources to redress the societal nature of American racism. Doing this work means recognizing that this kind of racism isn’t just about personal beliefs; as a systemic problem, it can only be cured by often-wrenching systemic change—change that some part of the population feels is unnecessary.

For CZI to become a positive force, its internal practices, its approach to giving, and its theory of change must view the world through this lens—and its leaders must be ready to make controversial grants and work with organizations that may criticize the Initiative. According to some Black employees, CZI has not been ready to meet that challenge. They told the Post “their voices have been marginalized and their expertise discounted.” As a consequence, “CZI’s grant-making has left Black leaders and Black communities unsupported.”

For years, CZI’s leaders responded with “resistance and exasperation” when Black employees asked the company to approach internal and external work through the lens of racial equity.

“You, Mark, and the senior leadership team have asked us to trust your commitment to making CZI a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable organization,” [members of CZI’s Black employee resource group] wrote to Chan. “You’ve asked for grace as you each engage in your personal racial equity journeys. You have made these requests of us for years, yet you have not made much progress.”

Because CZI and its founders are one and the same, the Initiative cannot effectively separate itself from Facebook. As Stanford political science professor Rob Reich told the Post, “Zuckerberg’s philanthropic work is harnessed to his reputation at Facebook. Not only does he have to make all his decisions with Facebook in mind, but CZI itself cannot escape the reputational cost it incurs in light of Zuckerberg’s work at Facebook.”

The challenges are illustrated by the outcomes of a million dollars put forward to support training community organizations to advocate for their constituencies more effectively.

One of the potential grantees was a group called Black Voters Matter, which has helped train and develop more than 200 Black-led groups in Southern states. But in the end, Black Voters Matter was the only finalist rejected for CZI funding.


Cliff Albright, head of Black Voters Matter, who has been working in advocacy and community organizing for more than 20 years, said Black-led organizations are often viewed as riskier investments in philanthropy. “It’s just an organizational version of what we face in life as individuals…if you won’t explicitly name race as a reason why many of these things happen, then you perpetuate the system that you want to dismantle.”

Internal critics see this as a consequence of Zuckerberg and Chan’s desire to maintain a level of political neutrality that will protect Facebook from blowback but denies the realities of structural racism. “The political pressure on Facebook indirectly hurt Black-led solutions,” said one employee. “We have to consider, ‘Is this going to be an issue for the right? Is this going to be bad publicity for Mark?’…If we are trying to appease the right, or we’re trying not to offend them, you have a very narrow lane in which you can work when you work on immigration and criminal justice.”

Another current employee told the Post, “As Trump has risen in power and potentially influence over Facebook, the perception has been that… is where all of the compromises have been made in order to meet the political objectives of Mark and Facebook.”

According to the Post, the pressure of protecting Facebook in the highly contested 2020 election from attacks framed how and where CZI funds were directed, independent of their ultimate impact on goals of racial justice. A member of CZI’s Justice and Opportunity Initiative says, “Chan became ‘more and more adamant about ensuring that the right is showing up in our work—that we are not making this a liberal solution, despite the fact that CZI was already funding most of the groups working at the intersection of conservatism and criminal justice reform.” Among CZI’s conservative grantees in September 2019 were “the American Conservative Union, Prison Fellowship, Right on Crime and the right-wing think tank R Street, with a grant in process to Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, a Southern Baptist group.”

It is not surprising, then, that despite Zuckerberg and Chan’s pride in CZI’s $40 million investment in “organizations working to overcome racial injustice,” their strategy as they describe it seems less focused on results than on keeping controversy at bay. The goal is, as they say to their employees, finding “a middle ground that builds consensus.” Zuckerberg said, “For a lot of political reasons, I think it’s much easier for a lot of other people to be external activists,” while Chan “has said she wants CZI to take a bipartisan approach.”

As a commercial entity, Facebook has every right to try to keep every customer happy. It has no responsibility to be a champion of social change. But CZI, which says it is putting its weight behind efforts that break “down systemic barriers that keep so many individuals, families, and communities from reaching their full potential” must be free to act differently. The test for Zuckerberg and Chan will be if they recognize that, in this time of deep political divide, the change they say they want means taking a side.—Martin Levine