Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about foundations, nonprofits and their impact

Much has been written since Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan said in a Facebook post last week that they would dedicate 99 percent of their wealth to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. This guest post from Renee Ho, an international development consultant, offers a fresh perspective. Renee suggests the donors like Zuckerberg and Chan have an opportunity to democratize philanthropy by listening to the people they aim to help–in much the same way as Facebook has thrived by responding to the needs and desires of its users.


Renee Ho

Dear Mark and Priscilla,

I read your beautiful letter on Facebook.  Congratulations on the birth of your daughter, Max.  I don’t yet have the words to describe the emotions your charitable promise stirs.  But let me try.

Like many people who work in aid and philanthropy, I want the world to be a better place.  I’m in the business of doing good.

I am, in fact, indebted to people like you — the billionaires who constitute a philanthrocapitalist class.  You have funded the work that I do; you have put bread on my table.  

And for this, I thank you.  I have counted on you to proclaim my work “good” and therefore, worthy of your investment.  

But I struggle with the fact that it’s you — a couple with a generous $45 billion to wield— I have to impress, and not the people for whom I actually work — the poor, or what the people my industry unfortunately call “beneficiaries.”

I struggle with the fact that my feelings, and those of my fellow do-gooders, are often censored in the interest of pleasing you.  With this very writing, colleagues wring their hands and say, “Now we’ll never be funded by them!”

I struggle with the fact funders rarely consult those whose lives are directly affected by their programs.  Is your definition of “good” the same as theirs?  Beneficiaries receive, for better or for worse.  Sadly, it seems, it’s often for the worse.

We live in a plutocracy and are at the whim of the wealthiest.  We are at the mercy of what you perceive as “evidence” in so-called “evidenced-based” decision-making.  

You don’t have bad intentions.  Quite to the contrary, as your letter suggests.  Moreover, I’m impressed that you’ve been able to learn from your experience in Newark schools, that time when you invested $100 million for a unsuccessful top-down program, one that had politicians and the wealthy setting the agenda.  You now thoughtfully include more teacher and parent involvement in your education endeavors.

You describe the world you want Max to grow-up in.  Let me tell you about my vision.

I, too, want children to grow-up in a world in which all lives have equal value.  But in my vision, philanthrocapitalists walk the talk.  In my world, we all start acting—and not just saying— like all lives have equal value.

Give voice to the poor and the marginalized.  Consult them at every step of your programming and collect their honest feedback. Democratize philanthropy, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the smart thing, too.   

Facebook, after all, has helped democratize media. Unlike traditional media, where the few speak to the many, social media gives everyone a voice. Your company thrives because it allows ordinary people to speak, to listen, to connect, to share ideas and help shape public discourse.

What’s more, as the chief executive of Facebook, you surely understand the importance of user feedback in improving your product and its value.  Why not apply the same principle to philanthropy?

As you write in your letter, and as you well know: “Building a better world starts with building strong and healthy communities.”  

Strong and healthy communities have participatory systems of governance.  Why not start at home?  Build a strong and healthy community within the philanthropic sector, one that is inclusive and welcoming of the very people you seek to help.  Let a hundred flowers bloom.

I, too, believe we have a collective responsibility to make the future better. 

It is why I do what I do.  

But with that responsibility, we need greater democratic accountability.  

It is why I write.

With gratitude,

Renee Ho

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