Sheryl Sandberg: A Philanthropist’s Profile

Sheryl Sandberg (Image Credit: Creative Commons)

Sheryl Sandberg might be among a handful of the largest donors to women and girls. As such, it is important to understand the nature of her giving and where this money goed. Through a thicket of documents, it is not always easy to tell.

Last November The Chronicle of Philanthropy announced that the Facebook COO was donating another $100 million to charity. This brought Sheryl Sandberg’s contributions at the time to over a quarter of a billion dollars — a total of $286.1 million. When I first started to explore her donations, I got no responses. Even for this article now, I received a very positive and polite response from Sheryl Sandberg & Dave Goldberg Family Foundation staff member, Pamela Nonga Ngue: “We will not be able to participate in the story, but we appreciate your consideration and the work you do to highlight women in philanthropy.”

When the $100 million announcement came last year, it was just days after the New York Times article Delay, Deny and Deflect: How Facebook’s Leaders Fought Through Crisis (Nov 4, 2018). The harsh exposé of Facebook’s role in the 2016 election opened with the pointed line, “Sheryl Sandberg was seething.” Was the The Chronicle of Philanthropy announcement, on November 16, days later, an attempt to deflect from the damage of the Times piece?

It is possible, but hard to tell. Philanthropy has its own timeline. Like so many high-end donors who make announcements of their intentions, often times the actual transfer of contributions to specified non-profit entities is delayed over time. In a 2016 Chronicle article about Sandberg’s first sizable donation of $107 million, this money went into her donor-advised fund at Fidelity Charitable. The Chronicle announcement last November offered that $50 million would go to her donor-advisor fund. The other $50 million would go to a start a new foundation, the Sandberg Goldberg Charitable Support Fund. Nine months later, still no word on what it is to support.

A March 13, 2019 article by Philip Rojc in Inside Philanthropy rekindled my exploration into Sandberg’s charity donations. His piece looked into how Fidelity Charitable had by 2018 risen to become the “the nation’s biggest grantmaker with $5.2 billion in donor-recommended grants”. The shift to donor-advised funds has been building over the past decade. “Over $110 billion now sit in DAFs, a big jump from just a few years ago,” Rojc underscores. Fidelity Charitable’s 2019 report of its 2018 giving lauds how this is a 17% increase from the year before. Such a rise is, one, remarkable, and, two, challenging for public accountability. Extremely challenging. The PDF linked in Rojc’s piece of Fidelity’s Schedule I filing of its 2016 990 form is 3,118 pages. The entire full 990 is 17,314 pages. An army of investigators is needed to decipher its full impact.

LeanIn.org

LeanIn.org, a non-profit, was initiated by Sheryl Sandberg to receive the royalties of her highly successful, and controversial, book, Lean In, that was published in 2013. After her husband’s death in 2015, the 501(c)3 was reorganized as the Sheryl Sandberg & Dave Goldberg Family Foundation. LeanIn.org was subsumed under it and OptionB.org was also added to its programs.

Leanin.org’s major function, as stated in its latest 990 form of 2017, “empowers women to achieve their ambitions.” My primary interest is with this branch of activity. It’s programmatic support totaled $3,352,288 that year. But this represents a drop of almost $1 million from 2016, when the expenses were $4,349,231. OptionB.org “helps people build resilience and find meaning in the face of adversity.” Dealing with grief and loss are a big portion of its work. Its design came from Ms. Sandberg’s own experiences after the death of Dave Goldberg. Program expenses for this area were reported as $3,458,479 for 2017 — very similar to the LeanIn.org branch.

At the heart of LeanIn.org efforts to “help women achieve their ambitions and work to create an equal world” are the Lean In Circles. The website boasts that 43,000 operate in 170 countries. This is an addition of 3,000 since last November. In small groups, women are encouraged “to learn from each other and achieve their goals, because women can be a powerful force for change in the world.” Equal pay, workplace studies, and a mentoring program are among a number of initiatives. Last Fall a number of new staff positions were advertised. As per Our Team page there are currently 31 members on the foundation staff. Many are identified as “Lead” affiliated. All but one are women, mostly young. Marketing titles abound to keep this massive number of circles growing and initiatives productive.

Lean In Collection at Getty Images

Sheryl Sandberg has famously reiterated the truism that “We can not become what we can not see.” The development of the Lean In Collection in partnership with Getty Images is geared to change that by broadening stock photograph images of girls and women. The point is to create imagery that is “more natural and authentic,” in the words of Pam Grossman, Director of Visual Trends at Getty Images. The originating concept for the Collection came from a conversation between the former Lean In consultant Jessica Bennet when she was having drinks with her friend Pam Grossman. Bennet, who worked on LeanIn.org’s editorial strategy in 2013 & 2014, elaborated in respond to my query, “It didn’t just identify the problem or analyze its extent, it aimed to correct it, to actually begin to reshape the imagery, at scale. Stock photography is absolutely everywhere around us, we often just don’t realize it.”

Pam Grossman, in a presentation at SXSW in 2014, explained, “Getty Images is the world’s largest creator of and distributor of images.” In discussing the book Lean In, she underscored, “Sheryl Sandberg naturally has very visual language.”

I asked two Bennington interns last Winter to give me their reactions to the Collection. One student responded: “I appreciated the diversity of jobs displayed. The image of the grandmother showing her grandson how to cook was powerful. Normalizing functional domesticity in young men is key.” The second intern stated: “It’s definitely an improvement from the ‘sexy secretary.’ Still, this new form of stereotyping undermines the complexity of the women’s experience.

The Collection being a better, upscaled new stereotyping is a concern of mine. A study done of the Collection shows that approximately 22% of the images at that time come from just two sources – both males. In 1977 Dr. Donna Allen crafted with her daughter, Dana Densmore, three basic feminist media principles. “People should speak for themselves.” was one of them. Getty has initiated a Women Photograph Grant. But the links are not working on ‘Recipients’ and ‘Judges’ so it is hard to evaluate. Several attempts to get the information failed by deadline.

Earned Income

I am a strong advocate of earned income within non-profits. LeanIn.org/Sheryl Sandberg & Dave Goldberg Family Foundation has dynamic earned income. To best understand how it has evolved I created this chart. I also added the contributions to the foundation and the donations that it gave to other charities:

Over a five year period this combined total earned income is almost $7 million. LeanIn.org is to be congratulated on having such a large portion of its expenses come from products so tied to its mission. While not every non-profit can have sales items related to its central work, earned income is an area that more 501(c)3 organizations might address.

A Champion

In 2015 Sheryl Sandberg became a advocate for the Global Fund for Women’s special initiative, an online multimedia project, IGNITE: Women Fueling Science and Technology. She participated in their Leaders Gallery which celebrated women “who are paying it forward — fostering the leadership and entrepreneurial skills of their peers and younger women through mentorship and investment.” Sandberg joined the Board of Directors of Women For Women International. In 2013 she made a substantial donation of $250,000 through Leanin.org. The next support listed, though, in 2016 is exceedingly modest at $5,040. A search of Fidelity’s 2016 Schedule I shows (page 868) that a contribution of $531,975 went to Women For Women International. However, there is no way to know if all, or any portion, of that donation actually came from Sheryl Sandberg. Or any particular donor, for that matter.

This is what Rojc calls “the dark money” where donors can mask their identity. As we know full well, this kind of money influence has severely corrupted the political process. Further, donors to DAFs get an immediate tax benefit. But their money sits. It is not necessarily put into circulation to be used by charities. As Rojc explains, “I imagine most struggling nonprofits would take the actual support now over the chance of slightly greater margins down the line.“ This delay in supporting charities is one of the major criticisms against DAFs. A good chunk of Ms. Sandberg’s $278.1 million may be sitting fallow at Fidelity Charitable. It might be enough to double the budgets of the entire international network of 740 women’s human rights organizations. See the graph mid-article. Their total combined budgets were $106 million in 2010. These are the frontline groups fighting for women’s equality.

In 2014, Sandberg joined the Giving Pledge of Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett to give away half her income during her lifetime. In 2016, despite an over all drop in giving, Sandberg was number 11 on the list of 50 top philanthropist. In 2017, she made the Top 50 list again, when the super rich made near record contributions.

In summary

There is a large and interrelated sector of women’s philanthropy that happens through the Women’s Funding Network, Women’s Donor Network and Women Moving Millions. It does not appear that Sandberg has worked actively in any of these circles. She appears to be promulgating her own brand of feminism, though I am not sure feminism can truly be a brand. The well over 300,000 women who have participated in LeanIn Circles have likely had their lives enriched and may be closer to achieving their ambitions. Unlike the consciousness raising sessions of the 60s and 70s, the Lean In Circles center around individual goals and personal success, not common social conditions and political barriers that are really the root causes of women’s discrimination.

Maybe a real test for Sandberg is how she has been able to affect the Facebook Board room as the Chief Operating Officer. Facebook had two board openings in 2018. Both positions were filled by white men. This past May, however, Peggy Alford, a Senior VP, Core Markets of PayPal Holding, became the first African American woman, and third woman, on the Facebook Board. In 2019, leaning in is going better than in 2018.

Full disclosure: While not a direct target, as a “Friend” of someone who was, I was one of the 87 million people swept up in the Facebook scandal about Cambridge Analytica. While I have not yet seen the film, I urge everyone to view The Great Hack.

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Philanthropy Women covers funding for gender equity in all sectors of society. We want to significantly shift public discourse, particularly in philanthropy, toward increased action for gender equality. You can support our work and access unlimited and premium content with one of our subscriptions.

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Author: Ariel Dougherty

Ariel Dougherty is a teacher, filmmaker, producer and mentor for women directed media/culture of all stripes. SWEET BANANAS (director, 1973) and !WOMEN ART REVOLUTION (Producer, 2010) are among the hundreds of films she has worked on. She writes at the intersections of women-identified media, especially film production, women's human rights, and funding for film. Currently, she is working on a book entitled Feminist Filmmaking Within Communities.

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