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Mark Zuckerberg’s effort to disrupt philanthropy has a race problem

Some Black employees at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, his $80 billion philanthropic company, say his efforts are stymied by blind spots around race and the desire to appear bipartisan.

(Washington Post illustration/iStock; based on photos by Getty Images, Bloomberg)

SAN FRANCISCO — As Facebook faced criticism in recent months about the way its policies can harm Black people, Mark Zuckerberg pointed to his investments in criminal justice reform through the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), the philanthropic company he co-founded with his wife as a vehicle to funnel 99 percent of their Facebook stock, now worth roughly $80 billion, into charitable causes.

“I haven’t talked much about our work on this,” the chief executive wrote to his 116 million Facebook followers a week after George Floyd’s death, “but the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has been one of the largest funders, investing ~$40 million annually for several years in organizations working to overcome racial injustice." He said he and his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan, "are committed to this work, and we expect to be in this fight for many years to come.”

To many Black employees at CZI, however, the organization’s goal of advancing justice has been compromised both by its internal practices and its approach to giving, according to recordings of company meetings, employee surveys, email, and interviews with current and former employees, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak for CZI. Some Black employees say that their voices have been marginalized and their expertise discounted. They also say CZI’s grant-making has left Black leaders and Black communities unsupported.

Prompted by the protests following Floyd’s death and statements Zuckerberg and Chan made about the Black Lives Matter movement, members of CZI’s Black employee resource group in late June wrote a letter to Chan, who runs day-to-day operations. The previously unreported letter, obtained by The Washington Post, said that 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,” the 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.”

In a statement, the company’s chief operating officer, Josué Estrada, responded to The Post on behalf of Zuckerberg and Chan, and said CZI has invested $2 billion in total across science, education, immigration, housing and criminal justice, 40 percent of which has gone to promoting racial equity.

“While a great deal of CZI’s philanthropic efforts to date have served to advance racial equity, progress has been uneven across our issue areas, and it has not always been explicitly named or systematically tracked," Estrada wrote. "We also have work to do internally. As a growing start-up philanthropy, we need to build systems that ensure we are supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion within our own organization.”

Through CZI, Zuckerberg propagates his worldview far beyond Facebook. And some Black employees say that his philanthropic efforts are stymied by the same desire to appear unbiased that critics of Facebook claim is causing real-world harm to Black communities. In recent months, civil rights leaders, independent auditors and Facebook’s own employees have called out what they perceive as Zuckerberg’s blind spots around race, including his approach to civil rights as a partisan issue, a blinkered view on moderating white supremacy and discomfort discussing anti-Blackness.

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Chan and Zuckerberg are some of the youngest billionaires to sign the Giving Pledge, where members promise to give away half their wealth, joining Bill and Melinda Gates, Pierre Omidyar, and Larry Ellison. Most donors shape their philanthropic legacies after distancing themselves from their companies — or from controversy. Gates, for example, stepped down as chief executive of Microsoft in 2000, the same year he launched his foundation and in the midst of an antitrust trial. For Zuckerberg and Chan, any politicization of their charitable giving could hurt Facebook, which is already under fire from both political parties.

Zuckerberg’s philanthropic work is “harnessed to his reputation at Facebook," says Stanford political science professor Rob Reich. “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.”

Estrada said, “The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and Facebook are two entirely separate organizations. Facebook interests — political or otherwise — have never, and will never dictate CZI’s work or strategy decisions.”

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When Zuckerberg and Chan launched CZI as a limited liability company in 2015, the couple said that solving the biggest problems facing the next generation would require taking risks and long-term thinking. Zuckerberg argued that as an LLC, CZI would have more freedom to fund the best solutions because traditional foundations are restricted from investing in for-profit companies or funding policy battles. Supporters cheered the idea as disruptive. Detractors, meanwhile, warned that an LLC might grant Zuckerberg greater ability to impose his personal beliefs in the public sphere.

On the contrary, Zuckerberg in June said CZI’s strategy is to find a middle ground and “build consensus.” “For a lot of political reasons, I think it’s much easier for a lot of other people to be external activists,” he said at a CZI town hall, according to a recording of the meeting, in response to an employee question about CZI funding police reform.

At the same town hall in June, Chan said she was educating herself on the movement to defund the police. But, she stressed, “it is all of our responsibility to look at our work and think about making sure we’re serving everyone,” according to a recording.

Chan has said she wants CZI to take a bipartisan approach. She has described herself to staff as “a Massachusetts Democrat, which means Republican in California,” according to a person present at staff meetings.

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From the get-go, Zuckerberg had ambitious targets for diversity within CZI based on the challenges he faced at Facebook, according to ex-CZI executives who joined early. Like most tech giants, Facebook made a big push for race and gender diversity five years ago, when Silicon Valley began disclosing its workforce demographics. But despite efforts, the portion of Black workers is still less than 4 percent, according to Facebook’s 2020 report.

CZI has achieved higher representation of Black employees, accounting for 7.2 percent of its 450-person workforce, according to data from May viewed by The Post. However, 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.

The Black employee resource group at CZI, Building Leadership & Knowledge (BLK), has been behind some of the lobbying for changes. The letter outlines five steps to make CZI more equitable, including hiring a diversity chief who reports to Chan, conducting a pay equity audit, sharing data on Black employee attrition and engagement, and succession planning that identifies and prepares Black employees for top roles when they open.

Members of BLK say group support for those five next steps is universal, but Black employees’ frustration varies with management. Some believe the cooperative approach is working, while others worry that leadership will not change without continuous pressure.

Chan has met with BLK three times since receiving the letter and has made progress on some of their requests, recordings show. In one of the meetings, Chan told the group that Black employees were leaving at a “statistically significant” higher rate, but said she did not want to share the attrition data until she had a plan to improve.

Chan also told BLK that leadership was still considering the request for a succession plan. “We need to make sure that opportunities are fair, and that we’re not just teeing up our Black employees for new opportunities,” she said, according to a recording of the meeting. In response, one BLK member said there was a difference between equality and equity.

At the company’s July all-hands meeting, Chan revealed that the new diversity chief would analyze both employee issues and external investments with a staff of two full-time employees but said the role will report to Estrada. (Facebook made a similar move two weeks earlier, when Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg announced that diversity chief Maxine Williams would report to her, despite pressure that the role report to Zuckerberg.)

Chan also shared findings from a 2020 employee engagement survey, completed in April, showing that 59 percent of Black employees said CZI was inclusive, compared with 87 percent of White employees, and 86 percent of both Asian and Latino employees, according to a image of the survey.

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The results of the 2020 survey echoed findings from a 2018 survey, viewed by The Post, in which focus groups of Black employees said CZI’s leaders needed to improve the way they handle race and that Black employees felt CZI’s philosophy had become “All Lives Matter."

That impression came from a town hall in late 2018, after CZI changed its mission statement from “advancing human potential and promoting equal opportunity” to “a future for everyone.”

Former CZI diversity, equity, and inclusion manager Maurice Wilkins says he asked Zuckerberg at that meeting whether CZI would be explicit about its support for Black and marginalized communities. According to Wilkins, Zuckerberg replied that it was already obvious based on CZI’s work.

Wilkins said he believes Zuckerberg and Chan genuinely want to do good but don’t appreciate the need to over-invest in marginalized communities who have less access to resources.

“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," he said.

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CZI began with a focus on science and education but expanded into policy and advocacy work in 2017, ultimately focusing on criminal justice reform, housing affordability in California and immigration reform, through its Justice and Opportunity Initiative (JOI).

Current and former employees say JOI has been the locus of much of the racial tension in CZI’s external work.

“As Trump has risen in power and potentially influence over Facebook, the perception has been that JOI is where all of the compromises have been made in order to meet the political objectives of Mark and Facebook," said a person familiar with leadership’s thinking, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak for CZI.

The political pressure on Facebook indirectly hurt Black-led solutions, said one employee working in JOI. “We have to consider, ‘Is this going to be an issue for the right? Is this going to be bad publicity for Mark?' ” the employee said. “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.”

JOI launched the same month President Trump took office, helmed by former Obama adviser David Plouffe, who previously ran policy for Uber. Zuckerberg and Chan picked the issue they wanted to support and then Plouffe looked for policy battles where CZI could make the most impact, he said. In criminal justice reform, where legislative momentum is happening on the state level, CZI joined a bipartisan “clean slate” initiative to help expunge records for convictions that has attracted both the libertarian industrialist Koch network and the left-leaning think tank Center for American Progress.

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But the JOI employee said that as the 2020 election approached, 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.

Documents show that leadership asked staff members to go through CZI’s criminal justice reform portfolio in September 2019 to determine which current and prospective grants were for conservative groups. The list of conservative grantees included 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, said the JOI employee.

CZI says funding decisions are based on need and potential impact and that the vast majority of JOI’s investments have gone to left-leaning groups. CZI also says it routinely audits the effectiveness of its work.

“Us deciding to join the Clean Slate initiative, it isn’t because the Koch brothers are there,” said Plouffe, who now serves as an outside adviser. “It’s because that’s how you’re going to get stuff done," he said.

Although all these causes are liberal at the core, some employees say they worry that they are being pushed away from politicized solutions, such as police reform, or from approaching issues such as family separation with the same urgency as CZI’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, for which CZI quickly funded vaccine research and supported front-line organizations helping disproportionately affected minority groups with education and economic stability.

Current and former executives said this tension stemmed from CZI hiring experts in the field — such as community organizers, advocates, educators or prosecutors — who wanted it to be more aggressive and chafed at its corporate approach. Peggy Alford, CZI’s former chief financial officer who in 2019 became the first Black woman to join Facebook’s board, said CZI had ambitious long-term goals across all issues. Sometimes good ideas were rejected based on budgets or strategy, not race, Alford said.

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Still, JOI’s work that does not fall along party lines has been able to prioritize racial equity as BLK had recommended. Ruby Shifrin, director of CZI’s housing affordability program, says her team has spent two years developing tools that they are now sharing with other CZI departments. Their methodology looks at which communities are likely to benefit from a grant or policy proposal, but also whether an organization is staffed with people who have been homeless or lived in affordable housing.

Fred Blackwell, chief executive of the San Francisco Foundation, which has partnered with CZI on housing work in the Bay Area, says he’s been impressed by CZI’s support for movement-building. Many corporate donors shy away from funding outspoken advocates because “you don’t control it,” Blackwell said. “They’re not always going to say stuff that is comfortable to your institution.”

Earlier this year, CZI committed $1 million in funding to groups that train community organizations to better advocate for their communities, money that was ultimately distributed through an intermediary, CZI said, a common practice in philanthropy. 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. CZI said it decided against funding the group because the funds went to organizations with a track record of training others how to advocate as a practice.

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," Albright said.

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