What Can We Expect From Sheryl Sandberg’s Philanthropic Pivot?

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Last week, Meta Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg announced she would be leaving the company to focus “more on my foundation and philanthropic work, which is more important to me than ever given how critical this moment is for women.” The news came a few weeks after Sandberg, who will remain on Meta’s board, took to Instagram to express her concerns over the likelihood that the Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade.

The news sparked many reactions, perhaps the most common being criticism of Sandberg’s run at Meta. I was hard-pressed to find many effusive takes on Sandberg’s 14-year tenure. Instead, most assessed her legacy on a continuum ranging from “mixed” to “toxic,” weighing her role as a trailblazing woman executive who turned Facebook into a money-making juggernaut against a seemingly endless loop of transgressions that occurred on her and Mark Zuckerberg’s watch.

What no one seems to be disputing is that Sandberg, whose net worth stands at $1.6 billion, will pivot to addressing women’s reproductive health issues and likely double down on causes she’s supported in the past, like poverty alleviation, hunger relief, education and coping with grief. In doing so, she’ll embark on what’s turning out to be one of the more fascinating and scrutinized exercises in philanthropic reputation burnishing in recent memory.

Where Sandberg’s philanthropy is headed

While the announcement has drawn fresh attention to her philanthropy, Sandberg has actually been engaged in giving for a while now. She has signed the Giving Pledge, and moves money through the Sheryl Sandberg and Dave Goldberg Family Foundation. The foundation runs two initiatives: LeanIn.org, which is named after her bestselling book, and which “empowers women to achieve their ambitions,” and OptionB.Org, which was launched after the sudden death of Sandberg’s husband, Dave Goldberg, and aims to help people who have experienced adversity and loss.

In 2019, a Forbes analysis found that a majority of Sandberg’s charitable giving since 2015 — $230 million worth of donated Facebook shares — flowed to donor-advised funds, making it difficult to know how much has made it into the hands of working nonprofits.

Sandberg did not make the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s list of top 50 givers in 2021. She did clock in at No. 15 the previous year, although she gave all of the $123 million to two of her charitable vehicles rather than working charities. Previous grant recipients include the Anti-Defamation League, the International Rescue Committee, the Second Harvest Food Bank, Planned Parenthood, and Teach for All, a global education group.

Sandberg suggested that her role as Meta’s COO kept her from engaging in more active giving. “It’s not a job that you can do and also do other things,” she said via a Facebook post. Although there are definitely other tech donors who would disagree, her belief is a common one across Silicon Valley — the region’s wealth managers call this delay “the pause.” The suggestion here is that Sandberg, no longer shackled to a day job, will be free to engage in more active giving, especially in the area of women’s issues and reproductive rights.

Sandberg told CNBC’s Julia Boorstin her plans include “[carving] out more space to do more for women,” rather than landing another corporate gig. “I don’t need to tell you how much it’s important to focus on helping women now,” she said. While she didn’t elaborate on what this support would look like, it isn’t a huge stretch to imagine Sandberg supporting organizations providing abortion services in states bordering those that outlaw the procedure if the court ultimately strikes down Roe v. Wade. As IP’s Dawn Wolfe wrote recently, there has long been a dearth of funding for abortion rights work, especially for services, and the sector has been overly shy in its support for this cause. There’s a lot of opportunity for Sandberg to become a prominent voice countering that trend.

That said, it’s also hard to imagine that the 52-year-old Sandberg will remain a full-time philanthropist for the rest of her life. Sources have reported that she has been showered with multiple lucrative offers, implying that at some point in the future, she may “re-pause” her philanthropic activities in the event she lands another grueling day job.

No clear role model

One obvious potential model for Sandberg as she ramps up her philanthropy would be Bill Gates, who co-launched the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000, rebranding himself as a global do-gooder in the process. After all, while Sandberg no doubt has sincere concerns over the causes she supports, this move has been perceived at least in part as a form of reputational rehab.

But the U.S. Department of Justice’s 2001 antitrust case against Microsoft now seems quaint compared to the charges levied against Meta during Sandberg’s tenure, which include (pauses for a deep breath) the Cambridge Analytical scandal, allowing Russian bots to spread propaganda prior to the 2016 election; fomenting ethnic violence in Myanmar and Sri Lanka; failing to clamp down on hate speech; providing a platform that contributed to the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol; and overseeing platforms that exacerbated the mental health crisis among teenage girls.

President Joe Biden went so far as to claim that social media platforms like Facebook were “killing people” by allowing vaccine-related misinformation to proliferate on its platforms. It almost makes you long for simpler times when Gates’ corporate misbehavior meant you couldn’t run Netscape on your PC.

At the end of the day, perhaps Sandberg’s best role model is her soon-to-be-former boss, Mark Zuckerberg, who, along with his wife, Priscilla Chan, has kept the money flowing to a litany of worthwhile causes while navigating a torrent of scandals. And remember, Sandberg hasn’t even fully extricated herself from Meta and all of its reputational baggage. By remaining on the Meta board and overseeing Zuckerberg, she’ll be susceptible to any blowback arising from future controversies that could throttle her best-laid charitable plans.

It’s a risk she’s willing to take. While people clearly have mixed feelings about Meta, Sandberg realizes that with a few exceptions, organizations haven’t refused Zuckerberg’s money, at least publicly. Then again, if reputation rehabilitation is her goal, she may be less than thrilled to learn that after decades’ worth of big-ticket philanthropy, a survey from last November found that 78% of respondents viewed Zuckerberg unfavorably.

The mood in the room has changed

I couldn’t help but notice a recurring theme in the coverage surrounding Sandberg’s announcement — the focus wasn’t merely her pivot to philanthropy, but her pivot to philanthropy to explicitly salvage her personal brand. That speaks volumes about current public assumptions regarding tech industry billionaires, for one, but also about the role of philanthropy itself.

“It’s Not Too Late for Sheryl Sandberg to Rehabilitate Her Image,” read the headline in Quartz. Bloomberg’s Mark Gongloff opined that Sandberg’s post-Meta advocacy for women’s advancement “can help her atone for Facebook’s ills.” 

“Don’t believe for a second Sandberg will live out the rest of her days in philanthropic pursuits,” wrote Variety’s Andrew Wallenstein. “She will be in search of the next chapter of her career, one where she can unwrite the bad press of her Facebook years and hope to reclaim her now faded glory.”

These are pretty cynical takes, but hard to deny on some level. Those who study philanthropy intuitively acknowledge that some donors use charitable giving as a mechanism to rehabilitate their reputations. It’s like gravity — we all know it exists, but can’t actually see it. The coverage around Sandberg, however, implies that the connection is self-evident in a way that struck me as unique, even in this current age of billionaire backlash. Philanthropy is a means to an end, and we’d be naive to pretend otherwise.

But I was most affected by a statement from Leena Barakat, the incoming president and CEO of Women Donors Network. “Sheryl Sandberg’s impact on the industry in terms of paving the way for women is undeniable,” Barakat told Market Watch. “What’s also undeniable is that she was part of an institution that has weakened our democracy. She now has the opportunity and responsibility to invest in its restoration, starting with strengthening the infrastructure of our democracy and the power and capacity of proximate movement leaders in the field through her philanthropy.”

The general public has historically viewed mega-donors with a mix of suspicion, resigned acceptance, and perfunctory gratitude. “Billionaire donors are way too rich and their business practices are harmful,” the thinking goes, “but at least they’re doing some good.” Billionaires don’t necessarily have to give, in other words, so we should be thankful for the crumbs we get. In this narrative, the mega-donors are the rarified agents of action. We’re the passive bystanders.

But Barakat has notably flipped the script, calling out Meta’s role in fomenting social unrest and laying out the terms of restitution, even going so far as to urge Sandberg to support fields like democracy and power-building — areas in which she has no philanthropic track record to speak of. It’s not that often that we see nonprofit leaders publicly dictating philanthropic priorities to billionaire donors, although we did see it to some extent with Jeff Bezos’ climate giving. That may represent some larger change in philanthropic discourse, perhaps resulting from a combination of the high bar MacKenzie Scott has set, rising social movements, or shifts in attitude that emerged during the pandemic around who wields power. Or maybe it’s just sheer exasperation with the wealthy. 

I admit there’s a risk of reading too much into a statement from a single individual. But Barakat’s urging, coupled with some of the other scathing press releases that I’ve come across in recent days, suggests that Sandberg, like Zuckerberg before her, has a very steep hill to climb. Countless nonprofit leaders and funders believe that Meta has made their lives infinitely more difficult. I’ve spoken to some of them, and the anger and frustration is very real.

If there’s to be any repair, reputational or otherwise, Sandberg’s anticipated focus on women’s reproductive rights should represent the starting point in a broader undertaking in which she allocates support to areas — think voting rights, racial justice, mental health, public health — where Meta’s business practices have had a detrimental impact on society. If it’s redemption that she ultimately seeks, we’ll see how far she’s willing to go to attain it.

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