Criticism of Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and Implications for Impact Investing Industry - The Challenges in Using Market Forces to Do Good

By: Andrew Luu | December 19, 2015

Facebook co-founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, announced earlier this week that he and his partner, Dr. Priscilla Chan, would devote 99% of their wealth, approximately $45 billion, to create social good by making impact investments in sectors such as health, education, scientific research, and energy. The announcement came in the form of an open letter announcing the pair’s launch into parenthood, through the birth of their daughter, and the impact investing industry, through the founding of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), LLC.

Zuckerberg and Chan’s announcement was met with mixed reception. While some celebrated the pair’s efforts, others criticized CZI for its LLC structure, calling into question the motives involved, particularly the tax implications of the LLC structure as well as CZI’s abilities as an LLC to invest in for-profit companies, potentially make political contributions, and avoid disclosure obligations.

Zuckerberg responded to criticisms via Facebook to dispel initial concerns. Primarily, Zuckerberg stated that he and Chan receive no tax benefit from transferring their shares to CZI and that the LLC model was favored over a nonprofit foundation structure to provide flexibility and agility in financing impact projects.

While Zuckerberg is not the first tech entrepreneur to contribute their fortune to the benefit of society through an LLC – for instance, eBay Founder Pierre Omidyar created his own impact investing firm, the Omidyar Network, structured as both an LLC and nonprofit foundation, providing flexible financing in the form of investments and grants –  the initial criticisms of CZI are instructive to general concerns surrounding the impact investing, which may persist as the amount of capital and the number of potential players in the industry continue to grow.

In an interview with NPR, Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, discusses impact investing and the perceived dichotomy between nonprofits and market forces. Stacy notes, “there is an important change happening. And one of the things that’s been part of this conversation is how can we use the market to better advantage… there are people who think this is a great idea and [those] who are concerned about it because they said the whole reason philanthropy and nonprofits exist is to correct what the market does wrong”. However, as regulation around the impact investing industry, particularly related to fiduciary responsibility and risk assessment of impact investments, continues to change, the line between market forces and nonprofit efforts begins to blur (See: IRS Ruling Makes Impact Investments More Accessible for Private Foundations).  
As impact investing continues to evolve as an industry, impact investors may inevitably have to mitigate public concern and general skepticism surrounding the use of market forces to alleviate social ills. While the number of realized impact investments continue to grow – adding to the body of evidence surrounding financial and impact performance of the industry – the strategies used by impact investors may also greatly influence perception of the impact investing as a whole. 

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