Inside the unrest at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.
At an emotional company town hall last week that blew past its hour-long time limit, one of Mark Zuckerberg’s engineers asked him to quit as CEO of Facebook.
But the appeal did not, as one might expect, come from an engineer at Facebook. It came from an engineer at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), the education, science, and policy philanthropy Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, founded in 2015.
“You and Priscilla have emphasized that Facebook and CZI are two separate organizations. This is true, but we have the same leader — you,” the CZI employee said, according to a video of the remarks viewed by Recode. “The actions you take at Facebook reflect on you as a leader and your leadership skills and values. It only reflects reality to say that our leader’s idea of free speech values calls to murder people for demonstrating over the political speech of the demonstrators themselves.”
That’s when the employee presented one of the richest people in the world with three choices: Either moderate these inflammatory posts of Donald Trump, resign from Facebook, or resign from CZI.
“I mean, no. None of those things would make sense,” said Zuckerberg, who seemed to be taken aback. Then, a few minutes later, he flipped the tables on the resignation question: “These organizations are different, but I do think that they come from some common sets of values. And I think at the end of the day, you all need to make whatever decisions you think are right in terms of wanting to work in an organization that is associated with a leader who is making other decisions that you may disagree with.”
Zuckerberg ended with this plain matter of fact: “Quite frankly, the idea that we would resign from CZI is ridiculous.”
Ridiculous or not, that one employee was speaking for a group of employees who over the past few years have found it difficult to work for the philanthropy that — although legally distinct from Facebook — is inextricably linked to a business empire they find disreputable. And in recent weeks, years of built-up angst at CZI have come spilling out, due to the ongoing protests in the US calling for an end to systemic racism after the killings of several Black Americans. These CZI employees take particular issue with the unwillingness of their boss, Zuckerberg, to place restrictions on Trump’s Facebook posts about the protests, in which he wrote, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
The line between the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Zuckerberg’s $80 billion-plus charity, and Facebook, his $600 billion-plus public company, legally exists, without a doubt. But what happens at one affects what happens at the other, according to interviews with a dozen current and former employees at CZI, along with others close to it, granted anonymity due to nondisclosure agreements.
The stench from Facebook — which always seems to be mired in scandal or public scrutiny — has wafted over the civic-minded and starry-eyed workforce at CZI, where many employees wrestle with the ethics of working alongside a corporation they cannot control. At least one employee has quit over the qualms.
“The word they use between the two companies is that there’s a firewall — so they’re all very distinct and separate — which, in practice, doesn’t hold up,” said one current CZI employee, pointing to the philanthropy’s source of money and leadership. “They can say whatever they want, but there’s a huge area of overlap there. I think if they were just more honest about it, it would be good for everyone.”
The sweep of Facebook’s crises have affected not just how the nonprofit’s employees feel, but what they do: Recode has learned that CZI scrapped a voter data project over concerns that it would attract scrutiny for Zuckerberg, who was struggling with fallout over a Facebook user data scandal involving the 2016 election. A civil rights nonprofit rejected funding CZI offered because the group didn’t want to be funded by money that it saw as tainted. Others have hesitated to use CZI products because of concerns about Facebook’s security lapses.
All of this shows just how far-reaching Facebook’s scandals have been for anybody even remotely associated with Zuckerberg’s brand.
Billionaires like Zuckerberg tend to point to their ambitious charities to push back against higher taxes, deflect scrutiny from their companies’ corporate practices, or even justify why billionaires like them should exist. But a new chorus of critics alleges that these donations are glorified tax avoidance meant primarily to burnish their public reputations, drawing a clear link between the business decisions and the philanthropy. So how CZI is being impacted by Facebook drama shows even more how the good work fueled by a business empire is not easily segregable from the business empire itself — or at least not as easily as the billionaires would like it to be.
This long-simmering tension between the left hand and the right hand of Mark Zuckerberg Inc. spilled into public view this month when a group of CZI-backed scientists said that Facebook’s unwillingness to moderate posts from Trump was “antithetical” to the work the philanthropy was doing. And CZI’s leadership is now giving voice to that tension.
“Thank you especially to those who asked hard questions and spoke openly and honestly about how this moment, particularly CZI’s relationship with Facebook, is weighing on you,” wrote Chan and Zuckerberg, CZI’s co-CEOs, to employees following the town hall last week, in an email obtained by Recode. “Although we are separate organizations with different missions and teams, we know it must be frustrating to feel like your work is impacted by an organization you don’t work for.”
CZI largely reiterated this internal note in a statement to Recode, publicly recognizing this “frustration” even though it stressed Facebook and CZI are “entirely separate.”
“CZI’s strength is in its 400+ people from a diversity of backgrounds and areas of expertise,” a CZI spokesperson said. “Four years in, we’re proud of our teammates and grantees, the risks we’ve taken, and the progress we’ve made — and we’re ready to keep fighting for the systemic change and causes we believe in.”
How Mark Zuckerberg’s business affects what happens at his philanthropy
It wasn’t always so hard to work there. But Facebook’s run of controversies — none more damaging than its refusal to moderate Trump’s posts over the past few weeks — has agitated those who work at CZI, some of whom came to the charity specifically to pursue the mission of racial justice.
CZI is one the country’s most ambitious philanthropies, dedicating $2 billion so far on tech-infused solutions for everything from coronavirus relief to what it describes as an attempt to “cure, prevent or manage all diseases” in this century. Unlike other philanthropies, CZI has spent big on politics and policy and is among the biggest backers of criminal justice and immigration reform.
Even though they are distinct entities, if there were no Facebook, there would be no CZI. Facebook staffers formed the core of CZI’s ranks after Zuckerberg and Chan announced its creation, with a pledge to use 99 percent of their Facebook stock. The philanthropy has ballooned in just a few years, pushing down the proportion of former Facebookers: About 10 percent of those who say on LinkedIn that they work at CZI also list Facebook as a previous employer, although sources told Recode that former Facebookers often feel like a greater percentage, given their prominence and CZI’s internal politics and culture. This is especially true on its team that builds education software, which started out as a Facebook project.
It was the Cambridge Analytica data scandal in the spring of 2018, when 87 million Facebook users learned that their information had leaked, that truly changed things. Just as that ushered in a new era of scrutiny for Facebook, it also ushered in a sea change at CZI, introducing drama, staff turnover, and concerns from some employees about leadership, making the hard work of philanthropy much harder.
After the news broke, CZI spent about half of its next town hall that spring talking not about CZI but about Cambridge Analytica. Some grantees reached out to the philanthropy in the aftermath of the scandal to ask if there was anything they should be concerned about, Chan told employees at the meeting. And the precipitous drop in Facebook’s share price immediately after the scandal broke raised hushed — even if speculative — questions among CZI employees about whether it could affect its budget or growth plans, sources said. (Facebook’s stock price eventually roared back.)
No incident better epitomizes how Facebook matters can sweep up seemingly unrelated work at CZI than what happened to a political startup that CZI acquired called Deck, according to sources. In 2017, CZI bought the company, which purchases consumer data, criminal justice data, and voter files to make predictive models about the likelihood of progressive candidates, primarily reform-friendly district attorney hopefuls, to win their races. Then, just a few days before its planned public launch in April 2018, with users already lined up, the Cambridge Analytica scandal exploded — and Zuckerberg and CZI’s leadership immediately paused the project’s launch.
According to people familiar with the matter, CZI’s leaders told some employees that a data-capturing program — even one at CZI — would be too touchy in the wake of Facebook’s data troubles.
The project was not outright canceled, at least not at first. But the product never launched. CZI employees working on it grew aggravated and eventually dispersed themselves across new CZI assignments, and all but one of the employees who worked on Deck have since left the nonprofit. Deck relaunched as an independent entity for Democrats late last year, with no public Zuckerberg backing.
Deck was not the only piece of CZI programming that would be affected by the scandals at Facebook.
Facebook’s controversies have caused some potential partners to question if they are willing to be associated with CZI. A few scientists who receive funding from CZI have told the philanthropy in recent weeks that they are reexamining if they still want to work with CZI going forward, one source said.
Color of Change, a racial justice group that has been sharply critical of Facebook, turned down a $2 million grant offer last year, according to sources, who said the group effectively saw it as “dirty money” because it came from Facebook. Color of Change declined to comment.
Other groups that have paused at CZI offers include some public school systems, some of which were skittish about using its flagship education initiative: a personalized learning platform called Summit. Some school leaders have told CZI officials they have concerns about the tech because of Facebook’s missteps in handling its users’ data privacy, according to sources.
The most public blow-up happened in 2018 at a school in Brooklyn, where students and parents protested Summit on account of its ties to Facebook. But former CZI employees told Recode it was not uncommon for them to encounter similar hesitations elsewhere when signing data privacy agreements or renewing contracts with Summit, for instance.
“How do we know that our personal information will be any better protected than it has been by you and Facebook in the past?” the group of Brooklyn students wrote Zuckerberg and Summit in 2018.
Another impact of concerns around Facebook: Some employees told Recode they felt it made CZI oversensitive to public relations. They have suspicions that CZI is skittish about funding groups that would reflect poorly on Zuckerberg or would create conflict for Facebook — especially if it involved backing a grassroots, unabashedly liberal agenda.
While this type of messaging is rarely explicit — Chan and Zuckerberg do speak openly of the desire to have a “big tent” and be bipartisan in their political work, even working with the Koch brothers at one point — multiple people who have worked at CZI said that after Cambridge Analytica, they feel that there is implicit messaging from leadership to not pursue too sensitive projects that could somehow boomerang back on Zuckerberg or Facebook, messaging that one current employee referred to as “guardrails.” Zuckerberg has trod lightly in politics amid unsupported accusations from the right that Facebook is biased against conservatives.
“Basically anything that we did at CZI was gated by whether it would drastically affect Facebook or not,” claimed a former employee. “I eventually left the company thinking that CZI was Facebook’s PR machine.”
Another source said the Cambridge Analytica scandal affected what CZI might have otherwise done in the policy arena, primarily out of concern that a gift from Zuckerberg could jeopardize the grantee and make them vulnerable to attack.
“Things where we might have leaned in that had a policy or a political edge to them, post-Cambridge the idea of doing that was much less feasible,” the source said.
Over the past year, for instance, CZI was preparing to give away $1 million directly and indirectly to progressive groups after issuing a public call for applications. But late in the process, CZI decided against directly funding some particularly controversial racial justice groups outside its normal scope of work, three sources said. The nonprofits involved had expected to receive the money from CZI soon and were startled, the sources said.
CZI did, in general, want to route some of these grants indirectly, working through outside intermediaries that are more specifically focused on this long-term work, a fairly normal practice. But one source said that the decision was also born out of a concern — explicitly expressed to some people — to manage any possible blowback to Zuckerberg from right-leaning critics of Facebook. CZI instead chose to route that $500,000 in intended grants through an outside organization, Solidaire, and recommended that they regrant that money to the racial justice groups that CZI had already chosen, two sources said. Solidaire has yet to make the grants. A CZI spokesperson disputed that its decision to work any grants through Solidaire was an effort to manage political blowback.
CZI also pushed back on the idea that it shies away from these progressive donations more broadly. It provided a list of more than a dozen grants it had made to liberal groups, in addition to backing efforts like the immigration group FWD.US and a California ballot initiative to overturn a landmark tax law that conservatives tend to defend.
“To be clear, a core part of our approach has always been bringing together unlikely allies from across the political spectrum to make real reform possible — from our work in criminal justice reform to immigration, and that is clearly reflected in our grantmaking,” a CZI spokesperson said.
Inside the frustration at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative
What happens at Facebook casts a shadow over CZI’s workforce, too. Just as some of the philanthropy’s possible partners are uneasy about its ties to Facebook, so are some of the philanthropy’s own employees.
It’s hard to tell precisely how many of the 400 or so CZI employees, in a fairly siloed work culture, feel this way; sources who are troubled by their employer’s obvious connection to Facebook argue this concern is widespread and that most of their colleagues feel similarly, while some others see it as merely a “vocal minority.” But most employees wrestle with this tension to some extent. Over dinners or drinks, coworkers sometimes debate the role they play in boosting Zuckerberg’s reputation, in what one current employee called “a constant struggle.”
The anxiety about this is acute enough that, after Cambridge Analytica, Facebook matters began “regularly” coming up at events that are supposed to be focused on CZI, sources say. Zuckerberg is, these days, far less visible in the charity’s day-to-day affairs than Chan. But at CZI’s roughly biweekly all-hands or its monthly town halls — Zuckerberg usually attends the latter — questions about Facebook come up most of the time, especially when Facebook is in the headlines.
At one town hall, for instance, after a Facebook employee named Mark Luckie penned a viral post in late 2018 saying that the company had “a Black people problem,” a CZI employee confronted Zuckerberg about whether Facebook was doing enough to support its Black employees. Some Facebook employees are still unhappy with Zuckerberg’s race record. Issues of race have also gripped CZI, where employees last week sent a letter to management saying it had to do better in how it deals with race.
Zuckerberg tends to give the same answers that he offers publicly about any Facebook controversy when asked about the news of the day, sources say. But while that might have worked before a corporate audience like Facebook employees — at least until recently — it can be frustrating to some of the diverse group of people that came to CZI to try to change the world.
“It’s never fully satisfying, but it always evened out — in terms of the good we do here will not be counteracted by the evil that Facebook does,” said one current employee. That was until George Floyd. Now, said that employee, “This situation feels different.”
Some feel more strongly about Facebook than others. One employee said they quit in large part due to these concerns about their complicity and a lack of confidence in Zuckerberg.
“One of the reasons I ended up leaving was that I could no longer put aside this feeling of shame and almost guilt, of being part of an organization where I don’t think Mark has a moral compass,” said one former employee. “I could no longer deny my gut feeling that this wasn’t important to him, that it was [an] about-face to save his reputation.
“I tried to push that gut feeling that I had: You shouldn’t be working here. You shouldn’t be working here.”
Those who do stay often share similar qualms about Zuckerberg. But they have reasons for staying: Some employees say that Facebook’s financial success gives them stability, which enables them to do far more ambitious work than they would elsewhere in the penny-pinching world of nonprofits. Others point to the role played by Chan, who is far more involved in day-to-day operations than Zuckerberg and is seen as much more proactive in grappling with the shadow of Facebook. Others cling to the “long game,” the possibility of enacting change at CZI from within. And yet another group is more fit to intellectually compartmentalize.
“I think many CZI employees are overly sensitive about this. Whether we like it or not, we would not exist without Facebook. That is the hard truth,” said one current employee of Zuckerberg’s decisions. “It doesn’t matter whether I agree or not. If I worked at Facebook, then that would matter. But I don’t work for Facebook, so it’s not particularly relevant.”
All of these tensions crescendoed last Tuesday at the town hall, the first after racial protests began gripping the country, when Zuckerberg spent almost the entire 80-minute session defending himself and Facebook’s decisions not to moderate Trump’s posts. One of those defenses even included a reference to how the American Civil Liberties Union defends the rights of neo-Nazis to protest out of the ACLU’s principled commitment to free speech, sources said.
CZI employees pressed him on how he could reconcile the philanthropy’s motto — “A Future for Everyone” — with what some consider to be Trump’s encouragement of racial violence. “You can’t create a future for someone who’s dead,” one person told him, sources recall.
“Trump is going to be judged by what he said,” Zuckerberg said at one point. “And it’s not going to be judged well, from my opinion.”
Still, one current employee described the whole meeting as “deeply unsatisfying.” Another said they felt that Zuckerberg’s argument about Facebook and CZI treated them “like we’re not that intelligent.”
“It really is highlighting for me how much power he has,” one of the employees said. “And the fact that, even as his direct employees, we are powerless to have our voices heard.”
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