Days after she stepped down as chief operating officer of Meta (née Facebook), Sheryl Sandberg revealed on Tuesday that she has pledged $3 million, spread out over the next three years, to the American Civil Liberties Union for its advocacy on abortion rights.
Dozens of news outlets reported the announcement as a major turning point in the battle against mounting abortion restrictions in the U.S.—and a new chapter for Sandberg as a public figure. The Washington Post said Sandberg is “remaking herself as one of the foremost philanthropists fighting the curtailment of abortion rights across the United States.” Bloomberg called her “one of [the ACLU’s] biggest benefactors.”
Those claims are technically true, I guess, though the only reason why Sandberg has been able to claim a spot among the top funders of abortion-rights work is that there are just a few hundred billionaires in the U.S., many of them are conservative, and a small fraction are women. Richer billionaires than Sandberg have also committed much more to the cause: MacKenzie Scott gave $275 million to Planned Parenthood earlier this year; others have given several million per year, while Sandberg has made two $1 million donations to Planned Parenthood in years past.
Meanwhile, the rush to publish headlines about Sandberg’s measly $1-million-a-year pledge seems a bit credulous of the potential impact of her gift. The Washington Post reports that it’s “one of the biggest donations for abortion rights in ACLU history.” (Emphasis mine, obviously.) If you have to add so many vague qualifiers to your impressive claim, maybe your claim isn’t that impressive.
Is the gift a big deal for the ACLU? Possibly. But it pales in comparison to other donations that got such dedicated promotional hype from the organization. I could only find a few other recent donation announcements in the ACLU’s archive of press releases, and they were all for pledges of $15 million or more. In the fiscal year 2021, the ACLU received $360.5 million in donations and grants. (That’s not including what state affiliates bring in.) If Sandberg splits up her donation equally over the three-year term of her pledge, her 2022 payout will likely make up less than 0.2 percent of what the organization raises this year.
Is the gift a big deal in the grand scheme of abortion access funding? Meh. It could certainly pay for a lot of abortions, but that’s not what the money is going toward. It’s going to political advocacy and voter outreach. To put $3 million over three years in perspective, NARAL Pro-Choice America, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, and EMILY’s List are collectively spending about $150 million on the 2022 midterm elections.
According to the ACLU, Sandberg’s donation will be used in part to “support ballot measures protecting abortion access.” The organization has already spent at least $6 million in Michigan alone on a ballot measure that would add the right to abortion to the state constitution if voters approve it this year. I have never seen such fanfare over the funding of a fraction of a ballot measure campaign.
But the question I’m most interested in, because the spoils of this publicity push seem to be accruing mostly to Sandberg, is this: Is the $3 million a big deal for her?
In 2021, as COO of Meta, Sandberg made about $35.2 million in total compensation, including Meta stock. (That’s before her outside income from investments, book sales, et cetera.) A $3 million donation spread out over three years is the equivalent of donating less than 3 percent of that compensation per year. A nice chunk of change to a single organization, but not quite a sacrifice.
Here’s another way to look at it: Sandberg has an estimated net worth of $1.5 billion, according to Forbes. (Bloomberg puts it at $2.1 billion, but to be fair to Sandberg, let’s go with the conservative estimate.) There are 1,500 millions in 1.5 billion. Sandberg has pledged to give away three of those millions, which is 0.2 percent of her net worth.
I just calculated 0.2 percent of my own net worth, and it is less than the price of a midrange Ikea sofa, which I could easily shell out for today without thinking twice about it.
If you want some more numbers to contextualize $3 million from Sandberg’s vantage point, here they are: In 2019 alone, according to an IRS filing, the investments held by Sandberg’s primary charitable foundation brought in more than $28.8 million—more than nine times the amount she has pledged to the ACLU. And Facebook spent $2.3 million in just one year on Sandberg’s personal use of private planes.
So, when you think about it, $3 million over three years for an entire news cycle about one’s new life as a philanthropist on the right side of history is a pretty good deal for Sandberg, what with her fraught legacy and Facebook’s history of funding the right-wing groups that triggered the demise of our right to abortion in the first place. Puck’s Theodore Schleifer reports that, in conversations with progressive fundraisers, Sandberg has emerged as the least appealing prospective billionaire donor due to her—and Facebook’s—ethical baggage. She is lucky to have finally found a taker!
I’m not saying Sandberg shouldn’t have made her pledge, or that it won’t help the fight for legal abortion on a state and local level. I’m sure this money will make some kind of difference—probably most dramatically in the lives of ACLU employees, who will be able to hire a bit more staff, fund a few new TV commercials, or (heh) buy a bunch of extra Facebook ads for their ballot measure campaigns.
I just think that we, the media, ought not to fawn over a philanthropic gesture that, as a proportion of Sandberg’s overall wealth, is the kind of cash you wouldn’t even need to check with your spouse before spending. Laundering your reputation after running one of the most socially toxic companies in the world should not be that cheap or easy. Unfortunately, in the U.S., at this desperate moment in women’s rights, it just might be. So, hey, as the saying goes, be the change you wish to find in the cracks between your Ikea sofa cushions!