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How Should We Feel About Mark Zuckerberg’s Philanthropic Ambitions?

It’s no secret that Mark Zuckerberg wants to change the world. He talks about it constantly — whether online in the form of his 6,000-word manifestos, or offline in interviews. The question is: How, exactly? I mean, beyond the whole “2 billion–user company” thing.

One answer is: Throw his money where it counts. According to a recent report by Vice News, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative — a limited-liability company founded by Zuck and his wife Priscilla Chan back in 2015 that’s dedicated to “charitable efforts” — has publicly committed $45 million “into groups aligned with two political causes: ending the era of mass incarceration and fixing the affordable housing crisis in American cities.”

Both causes are eminently worthy, and striking for their uniqueness. Previous Zuckerberg initiatives had included more common philanthropic issues like education — he donated $100 million to Newark public schools — and disease, which he says CZI will cure by the end of the century (no joke). Ending mass incarceration and easing the affordable-housing crisis are goals that speak to specific concerns of contemporary American society, and Zuckerberg’s money is likely to help.

But the announcement is also significant for what it tells us about the role Zuckerberg wants to play in the political process. It seems clear, based on how the money is being spent, that Zuckerberg isn’t particularly interested in being a leading-light hobbyist philanthropist seeking to raise awareness — he wants to leverage his wealth in the political arena to change laws and fix problems. The groups funded by CZI are chosen according to their track records on the introduction and passing of referendums, successfully lobbying for legislation, and swaying the minds of city officials on key issues. And looking at some of the most recent recipients of CZI funds — which includes a number of bona fide superstars (in the world of lobbying, at least), such as Families Against Mandatory Minimums, Alliance for Safety and Justice, and the American Conservative Union Foundation’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform — you can tell success is a prerequisite.

This focus on the political process seems to come naturally from CZI’s unusual structure — it’s an LLC, rather than a traditional nonprofit charity. “Being an LLC allows them to combine policy advocacy and direct, for-profit investment in a way that a traditional foundation does not,” Ben Soskis, a research associate at the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute explained to Vice. “It’s pretty clear that Zuckerberg is OK with getting his hands dirty in politics, and there are certainly some philanthropies that are not.”

CZI’s status as a limited-liability company — and not a foundation like that of the Gates, Clintons, or Obamas — grants it the unique ability to circumvent the rules and regulations regarding transparency and advocacy that traditionally ensnare the large-scale political aims of similar philanthropic organizations. As an LLC, the Chan Zuckerberg Institute isn’t legally obligated to disclose where its money goes, or even what its operating budget looks like (though, so far, they’ve more or less done this anyway). This likely makes the organization much more efficient, and more effective — which is great, if you’re onboard with Zuckerberg’s causes, or worrying, if you’re not.

And given Facebook’s own recent problems with transparency, it’s not hard to feel a little uncomfortable, even as Zuckerberg takes on real and important problems. If we can’t trust Zuckerberg & Co. not to shake the very foundation of our democracy when merely selling ads on Facebook, how are we supposed to feel when those very same players start to explicitly influence our country’s legislation? Is it better because they’re owning up to it? Or okay because everyone else is doing it and CZI’s causes (or at least the ones we know about) are just? Whatever the correct answer is, it doesn’t really matter what we think. It’s happening regardless, and all we can do is watch.

How Should We Feel About Mark Zuckerberg’s Philanthropy?