1 Q, 5 A’s: what would you ask foundation presidents testifying at a Congressional hearing?

Feb 5, 2024

And in the A’s, 16 more Q’s.

You’re a member of Congress on a committee holding a hearing to gather testimony from witnesses Ales Soros of the Open Society Foundations, Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation, and Mark Zuckerberg of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. What questions do you ask of one or more of them?


(In reverse-alphabetical order:)

Daniel P. Schmidt: Donor-advised funds—or DAFs, as they’re called—are today a most-favored “arrow” in the philanthropic “quiver.” Smaller givers than the ones you represent have made great use of them, taking advantage of benefits in the law or regulations that are even greater than the ones private foundations enjoy. These better benefits are regarding how much and when grants to charities need be made to retain the tax advantages, as well as how much need be disclosed about those grants if and when they occur.

I pose the following questions:

  • Do any of those private foundations you head themselves use DAFs, by the way, and if so, why or why not?
  • Would your charitable grantmaking somehow be more effective if those private foundations were able to—like DAFs—allow their corpuses to grow without having to make any actual grants to charities within a specified period of time?
  • Would it be fair, to charity and the nonprofit sector overall, for us policymakers to consider attaching conditions on DAFs’ tax benefits that would in some way specifically incentivize actual giving to charities within a specified period?

Leslie Lenkowsky: The first question any politician would ask when facing a group of people who control great wealth is “May I have a contribution for my campaign?” But since foundations are legally prohibited from participating in partisan elections, the answer should be “No” (although members of Congress from districts that received donations for 2020 election-related expenses from charities supported by Mark Zuckerberg might want to probe further on that—or maybe, say “thanks”).

Instead, here is what I would suggest the members ask:

  • What would you consider the most successful grants or series of grants your organization—since Zuckerberg operates through an LLC, not a foundation—has made in the past five years? Why?
  • What would you consider the least successful grants or series of grants your organization has made in the past five years? Why?
  • What lessons have you learned from these grants and how will they affect your organization in the future? 
  • Are policy changes needed to increase the likelihood that organizations like yours will be successful?

Craig Kennedy: Your foundations have given millions of dollars to various voter-registration, -education, and -mobilization groups. To each of you: 

  • Could you tell us how you determine that these groups are truly nonpartisan?
  • Would it be okay if these groups targeted specific Congressional districts?
  • Would it be okay if these groups targeted so-called “swing states” where the Presidential vote may be especially important?
  • Would it be okay if these groups openly took credit for a specific electoral outcome?

Michael E. Hartmann:

  • Mr. Zuckerberg: Did your substantial support, and/or that of entities you control, of the tax-exempt, charitable nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life’s activities in 2020 have the purpose or effect of getting our president elected and, if it “only” had that effect, wasn’t that effect utterly predictable given the way in which your support was distributed?
  • Mr. Walker: Last October, in the wake of the horrific attack by Hamas on Israel earlier that month, the Ford Foundation announced that it would no longer be supporting the Alliance for Global Justice, a nonprofit that faced scrutiny for its fiscal sponsorship of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Has Ford conducted a review of any other grantmaking related to that attack and/or Israel’s response to it, directly or indirectly—including the reaction to both the attack and the response on college campuses or elsewhere in America—and if so, what were the results?

Kristen Eastlick:

  • Mr. Zuckerberg: Your contributions to the Center for Tech and Civic Life were perhaps the first recorded instance of private funds to support the administration of federal elections. From where did the idea for this assistance arise? Did your program officers conceive of this project? Were you approached by someone from CTCL? According to “The Secret History of the Shadow Campaign That Saved the 2020 Election,” published in TIME in February 2021—and written by the same author who penned Nancy Pelosi’s “admiring” biography—you invited a number of civil-rights leaders to dinner at your home to talk about the election and election “disinformation.” Did the idea for your contributions arise there? Vanita Gupta, who went on to serve in the Biden Administration, was there. Did she propose this giving scheme? Did any of your program officers and CTCL discuss ways you would ensure that the program would be conducted in a non-partisan manner? Was the plan focused on covid mitigation efforts for voting, and if so, how do you feel that an NPR analysis determined a small fraction went to covid mitigation? How do you react to the knowledge that in many battleground states, these funds overwhelmingly benefited voters who cast their ballots for Biden, vs. those who cast their ballots for Trump?
  • Mr. Soros and Mr. Walker: As you clearly know, it is legal for foundations to give to voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts provided that they are conducted in a nonpartisan fashion—that they neither have the intent nor the effect of influencing the outcome of an election. After you donate to organizations for these election-related activities, please describe your process to ensure that the grantee and its programs ensured their activities were nonpartisan and did not benefit one candidate or political party?
  • Mr. Soros: If an Open Society grantee engaged in voter registration and that grantee were to list its top two contractors—representing 64% of its total expenses for that fiscal year—and have those vendors be Democratic campaign/direct-mail specialists, would that suggest to you that the grantee’s activities were partisan? Do you know how much money the Foundation to Promote Open Society contributed to a nonprofit named the Voter Registration Project from 2016-2021? Would it surprise you that the total is $8 million? Would it surprise you that VRP’s top two vendors for 2018 were Pivot Group and Mission Control, a Democratic campaign firm and a Democratic direct-mail firm, respectively? Will you continue to contribute to such a partisan outlet now that you know this information?