Mark Zuckerberg blurs PR and charity

Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s initiative has rehabilitated Facebook’s reputation. (Rick Wilking, Reuters)

Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s initiative has rehabilitated Facebook’s reputation. (Rick Wilking, Reuters)


Last week, the internet exploded with news stories that Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan pledged to donate 99% of their wealth to charity through the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

The mission of the initiative, which was founded in 2009, is to “advance human potential and promote equality”. So far, it has donated millions to a children’s hospital, an organisation that helps undocumented immigrants attend college, and other causes. It also has the added – and intentional – benefit of rehabilitating Facebook’s reputation.

Here’s the thing: the Chan-Zucker­bergs have not pledged to donate anything.
They have pledged to “give away” the huge majority of their Facebook shares, which is easy to mistake as the same thing. But the initiative is not a nonprofit. It’s a limited liability company (LLC) and it’s owned by Zuckerberg. The initiative is not obligated to donate anything to anyone.

When the Chan-Zuckerbergs say they will “give away” their wealth, that includes “giving it away” by investing in for-profit corporations, primarily ones focused on education technology: $5-million to MasteryConnect and $15-million to AltSchool last month alone.

How does this make the initiative the saviour of Facebook’s reputation? Anyone familiar with its rhetoric noticed the familiar “connecting people” phraseology in the announcement about the pledge. For years, this has been how Facebook has positioned itself: a for-profit organisation that is engaging in social good by providing the wonderful service of connecting us with our loved ones all around the world, for free! That’s much friendlier branding than “The World’s Smartest Billboard”.

There’s a reason the initiative is an LLC instead of, say, a charitable trust. An LLC gives Zuckerberg much more control over the organisation and, as far as I can tell, there’s not much to prevent the initiative from “giving away” money to Big Oil and Halliburton if Zuckerberg decides that’s what he wants to do.

Besides that, he has worked hard to position Facebook as a social good organisation, which, also, makes a killing selling information to advertisers. That sounds awfully similar to how the initiative has been portrayed: a social good organisation dedicated to advancing human potential and equality that also “gives away” tens of millions of dollars by investing them in for-profit corporations.

Of course, many corporations have charitable arms and many rich people have charitable foundations. The initiative is different because it’s a company deliberately designed to look like a charity, but with none of the accountability or transparency that comes with being a charitable nonprofit or private foundation.

These are not irrelevant details. When headlines about the initiative include words such as “donate” and “charity,” they’re lumping the initiative’s for-profit investments with its charitable donations. They’re implicitly equating the two. When the public starts thinking of Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, LLC, as a nonprofit and of technology companies as charities, then Facebook, by extension, becomes a charity in the public’s mind as well.

That subtle rebranding is a huge win for Facebook, which has been subject to increasing scrutiny, especially when it comes to privacy controls. For example, articles recently popped up on the web about sketchy third-party sites that collect and store Facebook data. Facebook the Corporation is a dangerous, desolate landscape, full of hidden booby traps that will steal your information and sell it to the highest bidder.

But its quiet rebranding is reminding users of Facebook as we used to perceive it: Facebook the Charity.

I am convinced the Chan-Zucker­bergs are sincere. Their donations will make a huge difference in people’s lives. But Zuckerberg is smart. As a nonprofit professional, I caution against the blurring of lines between true charities and for-profit companies whose products happen to make our lives a little easier or provide some social value.

But as a Facebook advertiser, I also open my arms wide and welcome the masses back to a seemingly trustworthy Facebook. Go ahead, tell Facebook everything about yourself – I have a great ad to show you.

Emily Baselt Steiger is a fundraiser, marketer and digital strategist at Colgate University in New York. 

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