Zuck’s “Meta” Twist and Kamala Hits the Trenches

Kamala Harris
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Theodore Schleifer
November 5, 2021

The billionaire philanthropists who also call the shots at major tech companies often take pains to distinguish between their day jobs as C.E.O.s and their side gigs as philanthropists. But in reality it’s not so simple for these masters of the universe to silo these two facets of their work, even if they try.

Consider Mark Zuckerberg, who is the C.E.O. not just of Facebook but also of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the philanthropy through which he and his wife and co-C.E.O., Priscilla Chan, have promised to give away 99 percent of their $100 billion fortune. Last year, I wrote a piece at Recode, which still holds, about the ways that all the problems at Facebook over the last few years have ricocheted onto C.Z.I., which is, of course, a separate company. But C.Z.I. is run in part by the same person, funded by the same stock, and affected by the same political headwinds. 

Grantees, for instance, are sometimes reluctant to take money from C.Z.I., seeing its money as tainted. Programming is sometimes affected: The launch of a political data project called Deck was delayed, and never happened, in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, for all the obvious optics reasons. And crucially, C.Z.I. employees—who are often idealistic, progressive-minded technologists and activists who want to change the world—sometimes have to wrestle with their unease about contributing to Zuckerberg Inc., especially when the going gets tough at Facebook. Last summer, at a C.Z.I. all-hands after Facebook declined to censor Donald Trump’s inflammatory posts about the murder of George Floyd, one gumptious C.Z.I. employee directly asked Zuckerberg to consider resigning from the philanthropy he founded. (C.Z.I has stressed that the two organizations are “entirely separate,” but has acknowledged that Facebook can create “frustration” for its employees.)

The going has indeed gotten tough again over at Facebook, if you hadn’t heard, the worst it has been since Floyd’s death. I would think that the exposés seeded by former Facebook employee Frances Haugen are difficult to read for anyone in Zuckerberg’s orbit, including those at his philanthropy. And yet there’s another twist in the evolving Facebook (sorry, Meta) story that illuminates the tangled relationship between Zuckerberg’s business and his charity. 

The Meta trademark, after all, comes from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Back in 2017, C.Z.I. purchased Meta, an A.I.-driven scientific-research startup, which was the philanthropy’s first big acquisition. Last week, however, C.Z.I. announced it would be sunsetting Meta, effective 2022, and that it had “entered an agreement to transfer those brand assets to Facebook after the decision to deprioritize Meta.” I don’t want to oversell this as some grand Zuckerbergian conspiracy—the idea that this project was killed because Facebook wanted the name is ludicrous. But Zuckerberg, it goes without saying, had better access to the brand than if the trademark and associated U.R.L.s. and social media handles hadn’t already belonged to his philanthropy. 

That’s not necessarily a trivial matter: Negotiating a trademark deal can take months, and I imagine this agreement could be made much more quickly. To wit: An unrelated company called Meta PC has already demanded $20 million to stand down a legal challenge over the “Meta” trademark. Facebook reportedly paid $6 million just for the URL for its new newsletter platform, Bulletin.com; if the brand of the entire Big Tech company was held by some outside party, I imagine that seller could’ve charged Facebook a pretty penny for the name for the associated rights. C.Z.I., when asked, declined to disclose terms of the deal.

But the bigger story, of course, is the permeability of these interlocking worlds. What happens at a founder’s company can affect what happens at a founder’s philanthropy, and vice versa. Not intentionally, necessarily, but that’s the way this works in practice. Nor is this unique to Zuckerberg: Some environmental groups reportedly have been hesitant to take money from the Bezos Earth Fund because of Amazon’s record on labor, for instance. There’s just no getting around it.

Kamala Harris Speaks to the Democracy Alliance

Vice president Kamala Harris is set to speak next Tuesday at the annual meeting of the Democracy Alliance, the longstanding progressive donor network. That’s according to an agenda for the two-day shindig that I obtained, which is a revealing window into the party’s financial armament.

For instance, are Democrats concerned about the potency of the Republican attacks over Critical Race Theory? After what happened in Virginia, as my colleague Julia Ioffe has noted, maybe they should be. You know who certainly is paying attention? The party’s biggest donors. The D.A., as it is known, is hosting a “Discussion on Critical Race Theory” led by a prominent civil rights scholar, Kimberlé Crenshaw, who is credited with coining the term, and Democratic pollster Terrance Woodbury.

The inclusion of C.R.T on the agenda, which circulated before Tuesday’s election, suggests that Democrats acknowledge they need to play better defense on the matter. The attacks “are working” according to the D.A.’s agenda. “If this is what we are facing now, what should we expect during next year’s midterms, when everything is on the line?” Other speakers at the virtual conference—the “Saving our Democracy Donor Summit”—include progressive stalwarts like Adam Schiff, Pramila Jayapal and Cori Bush. And then there is Harris, who wraps up the event with ten minutes of remarks on Tuesday afternoon and is sure to pay respects to the party’s biggest contributors.

The D.A., which launched in 2005 as a counterreaction to the Bush era, and has traditionally been associated with old-guard names like George Soros and Tom Steyer, is not the only game in town anymore. Over the last few years, new donor groups have made inroads with the party elite. Perhaps the most prominent of those rivals is Way to Win, which has particularly strong relationships in the Bay Area and is also grappling with the C.R.T. question. In a op-ed for the Times on Thursday, Way to Win President Tory Gavito argued that Democrats need to counter racialized attack lines, not by ignoring race but by reframing the narrative as an issue of class solidarity. Donors only have so much power, but it will be interesting to see how these two big-money groups press the party on their messaging.

Elon vs. the World

There’s something awfully unseemly and universally embarrassing about the back-and-forth this week between Elon Musk and the head of the United Nations World Food Program, David Beasley, which made me think less of all parties but also reveals some fundamental truths about billionaire philanthropy. If you don’t monitor the place where everything that is newsworthy involving Elon unfolds—his Twitter replies at random hours of the day, naturally—on Sunday Musk publicly ridiculed the U.N. for its statement that Musk could spend $6 billion to “solve” world hunger. The Tesla founder and the U.N. have since been going back and forth over how much data and money would be required if the two partnered up; Musk offered to sell $6 billion worth of Tesla stock “right now” if Beasley could show his math for how that modest sum could get the job done. Bealsey offered to meet him in outer space to do it, and the former Republican governor of South Carolina lobbed days of increasingly desperate tweets in Musk’s direction. It all reeked of pathetic egotism.

Let’s start where they are both right: Elon is totally correct to question the idea, frequently offered as lefty click-bait online—or, more entertainingly, by the daily “Has Jeff Bezos Decided to End World Hunger?” bot account—that billionaires could solve the world’s problems with a single charitable donation. Ending hunger is hard—many of you who read this could attest to that—and if it were truly that easy, it would be quite the shonda if Musk, Bezos or Zuckerberg hadn’t forked over their fortunes already, wouldn’t it? Beasley eventually clarified that the $6 billion would actually feed 42 million people who are hungry, not “solve” food insecurity, but critics, and Elon!, would say it’s not as simple as just donating more money. (The International Food Policy Research Institute estimates, for what it’s worth, that would cost as much as $265 billion per year.) And yet it’s also true that Elon has largely been AWOL from major philanthropy, even as his net worth climbs to an unfathomable $340 billion. As the inequalities of the human condition become starker, it is perfectly reasonable for society to press him for an explanation.

Except that’s not what happened here. Instead, it was Musk who pressed for an explanation, calling for an “open source accounting” of how Beasley would spend his $6 billion. Was it trolling? Genuine due diligence? As with everything Elon, the line between the real world and the joke world is needlepoint-thin. But anyone who works in nonprofits or development has seen this movie before, usually across a conference table, and at a lesser scale, as a foundation head asks for more Powerpoints and quarterly reports to justify a $100,000 grant for whatever pet project some billionaire has decided is truly “deserving.” That’s what makes people like MacKenzie Scott, who appears more trusting with her grantees, so different than her peers. The Elon interaction was degrading for all involved, but at least it illuminated the often twisted power imbalances in philanthropic work to his audience of 62 million followers.

What I’m Reading… 
  • This is a somewhat excruciating interview in The Atlantic with the C.E.O. of Arabella Advisors, the big philanthropic consulting firm, as she struggles to explain why big nonprofit donors have the right to privacy. My take: The lines are blurring so profoundly between “philanthropy” and “politics” that it is increasingly hard to defend anonymity for do-gooder causes if you won’t defend anonymity for, say, campaign contributions.
  • I can tell you that this Times story about big donors being frustrated with Biden for not awarding them enough appointments, sending them thank-you notes, or prioritizing their issues is 100 percent correct. I hear this from you all the time.
  • Reid Hoffman is indeed a big funder of the new media project from Democratic operative Tara McGowan. I wrote this summer that the Project for Good Information was basically made in a lab for a donor like Hoffman, and that it would be a reassuring sign for Hoffman’s continued political involvement if he funded it. And he did.