Donor Intent at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative

You may have read in the past few months that the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) is under fire for its allegedly inadequate response to the call for racial justice. In June a group of the organization’s black employees sent a letter to Priscilla Chan (who runs the operations of CZI) accusing her and her husband, Mark Zuckerberg, of failing to uphold their commitment “to making CZI a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable organization.”

In mid-August the Washington Post ran a piece on CZI’s “race problem” that detailed complaints about both internal employment practices and the philosophy driving CZI’s grantmaking. At the end of August, Ray Holgado, who had joined CZI in September 2018, resigned from his position as program officer in the Criminal Justice Reform team. And on November 9, he filed a racial discrimination claim against CZI with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

In a piece Holgado recently authored, “Performative Philanthropy and the Cost of Silence,” he lays out his case against CZI, mixing allegedly discriminatory practices toward black employees with his concerns that CZI “did not value [his] professional expertise, identity, or lived experience.” These are two very different things. It would be inappropriate and unfair to discuss the employment complaints that Holgado has lodged against CZI here; they will be reviewed and decided elsewhere. His complaints about his inability to influence the philosophy behind CZI’s grantmaking, however, involve questions around governance and power in philanthropy that do warrant our comment.

Holgado is particularly dismayed that CZI’s grantmaking “operates devoid of racial analysis,” pointing particularly to an admonition he received from a senior member of the Criminal Justice Reform team. “I was warned,” he writes, “…that I should avoid pushing for grantmaking strategies that centered racial equity, as Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan did not believe race was relevant to the issue of mass incarceration.” Twice in 2019, Holgado proposed bringing Edgar Villanueva, philanthropy executive and author of Decolonizing Wealth, to speak at CZI, and twice his suggestion was declined. That he was frustrated is understandable. And he certainly has a right to his opinion that it is “irresponsible and dangerous for an organization of [CZI’s] magnitude and influence to operate without care or consideration for race while tackling issues related to voting rights, housing, criminal justice, immigration, and education.” 

But CZI’s donors also have rights, as discussed in Preserving Your Legacy: A Wise Giver’s Guide to Honoring and Protecting Donor Intent. Given that CZI is not a private foundation but a philanthropic LLC, its donors have maximum flexibility and control to exercise their right to determine the organization’s philanthropic direction based on their understanding of what will, or will not, be effective, and the right to bring on staff members who will assist them in pursuing that direction.

Yes, they should listen to and consider other voices, including those of the communities they seek to serve, those of their program (and other) staffers, and those of other philanthropic leaders. They would most certainly find a broad variety of opinions about how best to move forward in their areas of focus and about the wisdom of viewing their grantmaking through a racial lens. But in the end, CZI’s grantmaking will—and should—represent the final decisions made by Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg.