Opinion
December 11, 2015

Time for the Public to Weigh Good and Bad of the Zuckerberg-Chan Gift

Gary He, Insider Images, Polaris, Newscom

Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg

Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan have provided only the barest, most platitudinous hints about where they will direct $45 billion worth of Facebook stocks that they pledged last week to use for “advancing human potential and promoting equality.” Yet they’ve already given me quite a holiday gift.

As a historian of philanthropy, I have done considerable research on the suspicion that has long surrounded various forms of charitable giving in the United States. I’ve written elsewhere that an “aggressive — even at times antagonistic — engagement between the public and their benefactors ... should be considered a democratic imperative.” And the amount of skepticism, unease, and even contempt directed at the charitable gesture by Mr. Zuckerberg and Dr. Chan has been striking.

So this last week has been for me, you might say, a festival of slights.

In fact, despite the straw man of a fawning, uncritical press, advanced by the occasional commentator, I think it’s fair to say that the general response to the Zuckerberg-Chan announcement has been a mixture of appreciation, apprehension, and ambivalence — precisely the attitudinal muddle that characterized the response to the rise of philanthropy in the first Gilded Age, a century ago.

The response has been even more ambivalent than it was nearly a decade ago, on the occasion of the last philanthropic pledge of this scale, when Warren Buffett announced in 2006 that he was handing over $30 billion to the Gates Foundation. Today the public seems even less inclined to take a press release at face value — especially when it comes disguised as a Facebook post. There is clearly a huge reservoir of resentment toward our young tech overlords that the announcement has tapped.

 Recent concerns about the dangers posed by wealth inequality have also fostered the suspicion. And Dale Russakoff’s recent book, The Prize, describing Mr. Zuckerberg’s disastrous $100 million grant to Newark’s public school system, has helped to cultivate a healthy ambivalence toward the prospect of his future largess raining down upon some other unsuspecting city.

We should welcome all this as a sign that the public is grappling with questions about the proper role of mega-philanthropy in a democracy and the power that private wealth can exert over public priorities. It’s a debate that’s been happening, at various levels of intensity, for as long as six-figure gifts have been announced.

But the attention will soon die down; editorial pages will move on to some other controversy; Donald Trump will say something else offensive (probably in the time it takes to read these few paragraphs). So it’s worth reflecting on what the uproar over the pledge by Mr. Zuckerberg and Dr. Chan might mean for the public’s long-term relationship with mega-philanthropy.

No Simple Gift

As the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu noted several decades ago — and as Linsey McGoey has more recently highlighted in No Such Thing as a Free Gift, on the Gates Foundation — “the major characteristic of the experience of the gift is ... its ambiguity."

A gift can be understood as “a refusal of self-interest and egoistic calculation, and an exaltation of generosity ... On the other hand, it never entirely excludes awareness of the logic of exchange.” By these terms, the relationship associated with a gift can plant the seeds of its own subversion; it lays bare the power imbalance between the giver and the receiver, stoking resentments that challenge the legitimacy of that imbalance. 

Pro Publica’s Jesse Eisenger highlighted this irony in his critical early look at the Zuckerberg-Chan pledge. His analysis showed how a large-scale philanthropic gift can affirm, for some, the economic system in which the wealth was produced and at the same time, for others, call that very system into question.

“Anytime a superwealthy plutocrat makes a charitable donation, the public ought to be reminded that this is how our tax system works,” he wrote in a piece reprinted in The New York Times. “Instead of lavishing praise on Mr. Zuckerberg for having issued a news release with a promise, this should be an occasion to mull what kind of society we want to live in.”

As we learn more, in the days and years to come, about where and how Mr. Zuckerberg and Dr. Chan will channel their fortune, there will be opportunities for important discussions about the regulatory structures, fiscal policies, democratic processes, and broader socio-economic arrangements on which that fortune rests.

But the conversations should not stop there. The public must also consider the ways in which the couple’s giving, even if it presents a threat to democratic institutions and egalitarian norms, can do some significant good.

Some of the critical responses to the announcement have been a bit too Calvinist, one might say; so preoccupied with big philanthropy’s plutocratic original sin that the arguments allow for no possible redemption.

In regard to Mr. Zuckerberg, many critics have invoked as a cautionary tale his efforts in Newark. There’s no doubt that his attempt to remake the city’s public-education system as a model of reform for the nation’s schools will enter the annals of American giving as an example of philanthropic folly — doomed by overpaid consultants, top-down bureaucratic hubris, and too-little regard for community input.

But there is more to the Newark narrative. For one thing, it’s an example of the benefits of careful, sustained nonprofit reporting. If we now can pronounce upon the various failings of Mr. Zuckerberg’s gift with some degree of confidence, it is because reporters like Ms. Russakoff did the hard work of digging out the details, staying with the story long after its basic stock characters had emerged, and allowing it to become more than just a simple morality tale.

And, in fact, the situation in Newark is a bit more nuanced than the caricature promoted by Mr. Zuckerberg’s most vociferous critics. The same day that he released his Facebook letter to his daughter, for instance, the foundation that he created to manage his gift in the city announced its final two projects: a community-based school program, targeted especially to the city’s poorest students, and a youth network, both of which suggest that Mr. Zuckerberg has taken the public flogging he received to heart.

The Facebook founder has claimed as much. One of the principles of giving that he encoded in his Facebook letter was to “engage directly with the people we serve.”

In his subsequent educational philanthropy in the Bay Area, early efforts suggest he has put this principle more into practice. Ms. Russakoff herself weighed in this week in The Washington Post, explaining the ways Mr. Zuckerberg had been “changed” by the Newark experience. 

Test of Time

This points to another element of the Zuckerberg-Chan announcement that needs more scrutiny, and not just of the derisive kind: the couple’s youth.

Mr. Zuckerberg and Dr. Chan, both in their early 30s, have decades of philanthropy ahead of them, and they made clear that they were operating with a view toward the long run.

“The greatest challenges require very long time horizons and cannot be solved by short term thinking,” they wrote, as if atoning for the quick-fix regimen Mr. Zuckerberg imposed on Newark.

Such a temporal vista can allow space for bold experimentation, or encourage the fetishizing of the philanthropic mistake that marks fellow tech mogul Sean Parker’s call for “hacker philanthropy.”

But long time horizons also allow for the possibility of learning and growing as philanthropists. And here is where an engaged public, willing to educate, cajole, and reproach the couple in regard to their giving, has an important part to play; a role that requires some faith in the power of mega-philanthropy to achieve social good.

Which is not to say that Mr. Zuckerberg and Dr. Chan have made things easy for their good-faith critics.

The mixture of techno-utopian breathlessness and new-parent sap in the Facebook letter to their newborn daughter announcing their pledge was a bit ... rich. Some of the millennial ambitions the couple laid out — eliminating poverty, for instance — seem deliberately calculated to disappoint, in the light of philanthropy’s modest achievements in the past.

Other aims just feel unsettling. Even on the best of mornings, I’m not really sure I want to “experience 100 times more than we do today.” There are also real, troubling issues with the danger of self-dealing possible in the promotion of Facebook under the mantle of spreading the gospel of Internet connectivity.

Then there are the questions about the limited-liability corporation structure that the couple chose as the vehicle for their giving. As they themselves noted, an LLC will allow them more freedom to invest in for-profit companies and make political donations. It also lacks the regulations requiring traditional philanthropic foundations to heed certain reporting requirements and spend 5 percent of assets annually.

The use of an LLC doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the possibility of a robust, critical relationship between a philanthropic power couple and the public. “In my view what we have is a promise to give money away at some future time in amounts to be disclosed at some future time,” lawyer Jack Blum wrote in The New York Times. “Time will tell if the promise is kept but the public may never know.”

There’s an apparent paradox here.

Mr. Zuckerberg has styled himself an evangelist of connectivity, the Silicon Valley Arachne spinning a vast social network, bringing us all closer together. But, of course, Facebook offers only a simulacrum of personal transparency. What it really grants users is the power to shape public perception of their private lives: vacations on sparkling beaches with the smiling family; perfectly curated dinners; links to high-brow journal articles they may or may not have actually read. 

This is what Mr. Zuckerberg and Dr. Chan seem to want in terms of their giving: the power to tell their own story on their own terms.

But if the public is to engage with philanthropists in good faith, it needs more than that. Coupled with the spread of donor-advised funds, which are themselves remarkably opaque giving instruments, the rise of LLCs as a philanthropic vehicle represents a real challenge to public engagement, which is one of the pillars on which the civic legitimacy of philanthropy rests.

Mr. Zuckerberg has made a fortune from harvesting the information of Facebook users. The public now needs to make its own claim on more of the information that Mr. Zuckerberg and Dr. Chan wish to preserve in their own tightly-spun giving cocoon.

That’s the only way that we can balance the two feuding imperatives at the heart of the public’s responsibility to appraise the gifts of big donors: thinking through the dangers they pose and the promises they hold.

Benjamin Soskis is a historian of philanthropy at the Center for Nonprofit Management, Philanthropy and Policy at George Mason University and a co-editor of the HistPhil blog.