Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C., buzzing with the debut of his new organization, Fwd.us (say: “Forward Us”). What is it exactly?
It has been called a lobbying group, a political action committee and a super PAC. But it is not really any of those.
It’s organized under Section 501(c)(4) of the federal tax code, which covers “social welfare” groups. As the IRS notes, the law defines these groups very broadly: “An organization is operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare if it is primarily engaged in promoting in some way the common good and general welfare of the community.”
The 501(c)(4)s enjoy charity status, but unlike the more familiar 501(c)(3)s, they can get involved in politics as long as they don’t campaign for or against a specific candidate. And unlike PACs and super PACs, they don’t file campaign disclosure reports with the Federal Election Commission. They can take donations of any amount and spend as much as they want, and they’re not required to say where their money comes from.
So what sorts of things can organizations like Fwd.us spend their money on?
They can lobby members of Congress. They can produce ads and buy air time. They can hold rallies and events.
But what will Fwd.us spend its money on? That’s not clear yet. We haven’t gotten hold of the group yet, but TechCrunch quotes Fwd.us campaign manager Rob Jesmer as saying “the group’s activities will include engaging the tech community in online advocacy, policy and fundraising.”
The tech industry already has a litany of high-powered lobbying groups, so analysts are predicting it will take a different approach. On its staff are people who specialize in digital and grassroots campaigns.
Fwd.us has not been clear about how it will spend its money, but Zuckerberg’s op-ed piece in the Washington Post earlier this week explains why he and other Silicon Valley leaders launched the group. Fwd.us will advocate for comprehensive immigration reform to attract more innovative people. It will also advocate for education reform, with an emphasis on encouraging science, technology, engineering and math programs.
Fwd.us has two offices: one in Silicon Valley and one in Washington, D.C. The Silicon Valley team will focus on public outreach: the digital components and membership efforts of the campaign. The Washington team is focused on advocacy and research, according to the website.
The group’s president, Joe Green, was Zuckerberg’s roommate at Harvard, and the pair created Face Mash (the predecessor of Facebook) together, Business Insider reported last year. But, on the advice of his father, Green declined Zuckerberg’s offer to run the business end of Facebook. He went on to found Nationbuilder, a software platform that helps community groups or leaders organize online.
The D.C. office staff is led by Jesmer, a prominent Republican strategist and former director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. He and research director Scott Sloofman, the former deputy director of the Republican National Committee War Room, are counterbalanced by Alinda Garcia, who helped lead the Latino campaign for Obama 2012, and Kate Hansen, formerly of the Democratic Governors Association.
The people behind the group are almost all high-profile Silicon Valley leaders. They include Drew Houston, the founder and CEO of Drop Box, Reid Hoffman, the founder and CEO of LinkedIn and Ron Conway, a prominent technology venture capitalist, among others.
Fwd.us takes a step towards transparency by listing some of its top donors, though not how much each gave. Some of the top donors include:
- Brian Chesky, CEO and cofounder of Airbnb
- Chris Cox, vice president of product at Facebook
- Paul Graham, cofounder of Y Combinator
- Reed Hastings, founder and CEO of Netflix
- Max Levchin, cofounder of PayPal, Chairman of Yelp
- Andrew Mason, cofounder of Groupon
- Marissa Mayer, CEO, president and director of Yahoo!
- Elon Musk, CEO and chief designer of SpaceX and CEO and product architect of Tesla Motors
- Mark Pincus, founder, CEO and chief product officer of Zynga
- Hosain Rahman, CEO and founder of Jawbone
- Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google
- Kevin Systrom, CEO and cofounder of Instagram
- Padmasree Warrior, chief technology and strategy officer at Cisco