Not so fast, Mark Zuckerberg: 4 reasons to be skeptical of his $45 billion giveaway

Philanthropy and technology can't solve every complex problem—and Zuckerberg has plenty in his own backyard

Published December 3, 2015 7:15PM (EST)


On Tuesday, Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan announced plans to donate 99 percent of their Facebook shares to the new philanthropic Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.  At a current valuation of $45 billion, that’s no small sum.  And while many have already praised the couple’s altruism (including early commenters and “likers” Melinda Gates, Shakira, and Gavin Newsom), the announcement should also raise questions about the problems of philanthropy—and the limits of technology—to solve large-scale social issues with complex political and economic roots.

The new parents frame their public note as a letter to their newborn daughter, with a sentimental charm that echoes Google’s infamous “Dear Sophie” video ad and adds a plethora of idealistic buzzwords sure to please search engines and social entrepreneurs alike.  Seeking to better the world their child will inherit, they distill CZI’s mission as “advancing human potential and promoting equality.”  These are certainly laudable goals, but their approach to three primary focus areas—personalized education, increased connectivity, and healthy communities—leave generous room for skepticism about their plan and the platforms that enable it.

1. Philanthropy’s Problems

Philanthropy is a problematic field. At best, it redistributes resources to underserved communities, but at worst it functions as another means for elites to avoid taxes.  As activists like INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence argue, philanthropy often enables the wealthy to exert disproportionate influence on social and political issues.  At least in theory, taxes can be more equitably distributed across regions or communities, enable issues to be tackled in a systematic manner, and include built-in measures of accountability through democratic processes.  

In contrast, many foundations act independently and arbitrarily: they distribute funds based on the impulsive or under-informed priorities of their funders, offer small grants and short timelines that don’t allow organizations to scale or sustain themselves, and stay in business by giving away only tiny percentages of their holdings.  At the same time, philanthropy offers large tax breaks for the wealthy, shifting social spending decisions from the many hands of the public to an elite few—an unfortunate form of pay-to-play politics.  

As Forbes points out, by donating shares rather than cash, Zuckerberg greatly reduces his own tax liabilities, and not surprisingly, Facebook is one of those Fortune 500 companies that’s especially good at avoiding paying its fair share of taxes.  Facebook takes advantage of tax loopholes such as the Double Irish strategy, which Forbes reports saved the company $700 million in 2014 by moving profits offshore.  It has also offered stock options as compensation to reduce tax burdens, with the LA Times noting that in 2013, Zuckerberg alone gained $3.3 billion—more than the $1 billion he plans to give away annually.  While Zuckerberg may be a successful entrepreneur, his wealth shouldn’t allow him to single-handedly dictate matters of public policy, any more than it should allow him to influence elections.  

2. Tech Troubles

Equally troubling, Zuckerberg insists that technology holds the answers to complex social issues, echoing a “there’s an app for that!” mentality that too-often fails to consider the systematic factors at play.  Theorist Evgeny Morozov calls this approach “solutionism,” as it tends to suggest answers based on the assumed ease and efficiency of tech tools, rather than considering whether the questions being asked are indeed the most appropriate starting points.

In their letter, Chan and Zuckerberg make incredibly broad claims about the issues they’re attempting to tackle, setting the stage for seemingly simple solutions.  For example, they suggest that “most people die” from five diseases, which they believe can be cured or managed in the next century.  Surely additional funding for research and prevention is useful, but it’s important to remember that disease and death are wrapped up in complex political, economic, and social contexts, ranging from exposure to toxic materials to the high cost and profits of prescription drugs to the miseducation or social stigma attached to conditions like HIV/AIDS.  And their framework hardly accounts for other major causes of death—suicide, gun violence, and armed conflict—that often require political will rather than programs.

Similarly, Zuckerberg’s recent foray into education reform—a $100 million donation to Newark charter schools—has largely been considered a failure, as documented by journalist Dale Russakoff.  Among its major issues were high administrative costs (including exorbitant consulting fees), conflicts with teachers’ unions, and an algorithm that determined school placements without adequately taking into account the social dynamics of local neighborhoods and students’ routes to get there.  The donation has dried up, and Zuck has yet to acknowledge how such a failed investment adversely impacts the lives of low-income students in contrast to the benign “fail often and fast” ethos of Silicon Valley startups.

Finally, Zuckerberg’s Internet connectivity initiatives are nothing short of dubious.  While providing Internet access surely benefits many, Facebook’s platform clearly demonstrates that the company has much to gain by connecting people.  One of the major critiques of the service comes from communities in India who argue that the service violates the principles of Net Neutrality, enabling access to certain types of content (hint: Facebook’s own) at the expense of others.  As the second-most-visited site in the world, Facebook clearly profits from expanding its user base.  It certainly raises the question: If the CEO of one of the world’s largest media platforms seeks to expand Internet access, can it ever be truly philanthropic?

3. Anxieties At Home

If Zuckerberg wants to “leave the world a better place,” he should begin in his own backyard.  Facebook can contribute to a more just society by doing more than donating money: it should also examine the ethics and impacts of its own business practices, its presence in local communities, and its own user policies and procedures.

As a company, Facebook has received its share of criticism for dismal racial and gender equity, particularly in its leadership and engineering teams.  As The Guardian reported in June, despite yearly critique, Facebook has failed to significantly increase its hiring of African-American employees, resulting in a workforce that is only 2 percent black and lacks any black senior leaders.  Similarly, in an interview with the Advocate this week, former engineer Brielle Harrison, who identifies as transgender, describes a persistent “brogrammer” culture that consistently undermines the contributions of women.

Located outside San Francisco, Facebook also plays a role in conversations about the region’s rising rents and evictions.  Though Silicon Valley’s controversial private shuttles are often collectively labeled “Google buses,” Facebook runs more than 70 shuttles of its own.  Within the last year, bus drivers successfully voted to unionize for better wages and scheduling, however they claim that Facebook and its contracted shuttle service engaged in union-busting practices.  What’s more, studies have indicated a disproportionate increase in rent prices within blocks of shuttle stops.  Rather than addressing economic inequality directly, Zuckerberg made a large donation to San Francisco General Hospital, which has irked residents and nurses for the renaming of this public institution after the CEO and his wife.

Lastly, Facebook has come under fire for several policies that undermine the spirit of equity, connectivity, and community health it claims to promote.  For example, for more than a year, activists (this writer included) have waged a campaign against the company’s so-called “real names” policy, which has directly impacted tens of thousands of LGBT people, Native Americans, domestic violence survivors, and other already-marginalized users, often resulting in disconnection from their communities.  In addition, Facebook’s much-discussed mood study manipulated users’ feeds without their express permission, raising ethical questions about its impact on users’ mental health.

4. Lean In, Step Back

Surely the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is positioned to do good in the world, but as the entrepreneur himself would likely agree, there’s always the possibility to do more.  Even with such a massive donation to be doled out over his lifetime, Zuckerberg stands to remain one of the richest people in the world for the foreseeable future.  From this unique position, he and Chan could further their impact by going deeper in examining their personal contributions to wealth gaps, their assumptions about who initiates social change, and their relationships to philanthropy’s complicated history—all to better engage the root causes of inequality in education, information access, and healthcare.

They might also increase their impact by giving away more money faster, allowing change-makers to apply large sums to major social issues without delay.  The question remains: Why hold onto the majority of it when there are pressing needs now?  By smartly spending funds on large-scale initiatives—a chance NGOs rarely receive—the CZI could experiment with applying tech’s massive Uber-style investments to the social sector, ideally with longer-term timelines and an emphasis on qualitative as well as quantitative improvements.

Ultimately, now that Zuckerberg and Chan have made their commitment, it’s time for them to step back and let those with on-the-ground experience exercise their leadership.  If they truly want their generosity to result in sustainable change, they need to be willing to make contributions without strings attached.  They can now invest time in the joys of raising their new daughter, while the next generation of leaders gets to work.

By Lil Miss Hot Mess

Lil Miss Hot Mess is a drag queen and organizer with the #MyNameIs campaign to end Facebook’s “real names” policy whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Salon, and the Huffington Post. In her other life, she is a PhD student in media studies at New York University.

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Chan Zuckerberg Initiative Facebook Mark Zuckerberg Philanthropy