News and analysis
June 27, 2017

For Jeff Bezos’s Philanthropic Focus, Readers Favor Long-Term Change

Brent Lewis/The Denver Post/Getty Images

Is it better for a major donor to focus his philanthropy more on short-term or long-term changes?

We asked you that question last week in light of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s tweet saying he wanted to give to solve immediate problems but also asking for guidance on his philanthropy. A slight majority of you, 55 percent, believe that long-term change is the better focus.

Of course, this binary choice oversimplifies the decision that Mr. Bezos faces, but you made several arguments in favor of one side or the other.

Below are some of your reasons for voting how you did, edited for brevity and clarity.

In Favor of Short-Term Wins


Meg Carter, communications specialist at ChildFund International

The world is a complex, adaptive system, responding to many shifts — climate, conflict, demographic, epidemic, governance, to name a few. Any long-term plan will be derailed by factors that you, as a philanthropist, cannot control. Outcomes will never be clearly attributable to your interventions, so you will have difficulty evaluating your success, both in the interim & the long term.

Our experience with poverty indicates 3 key areas where you can make a substantial short-term difference: unconditional cash transfers (because most poor people need money to move out of poverty), health care (because disease keeps adults out of work & children out of school), and education (because educating girls is highly correlated with a country’s development).


David Broussard, vice president and grant-services team leader at Dickerson, Bakker & Associates

Short-term philanthropy — especially for someone who is new to philanthropy — is always the way to go. It allows a short feedback loop to understand the impact and the shortcomings of financial support. It allows the donor to experience giving in a way that gives them the first-hand perspective of where and how the systems need to change.

Funding a homeless shelter and being actively a part of it is a great first step. I worry that Mr. Bezos will be sucked into the endless war of philanthropic ideology and waste his funds fighting a losing battle — at least at this stage of his philanthropic career. Start small, get your feet wet, and resist the pressure to make massive gifts right off the bat. The experience of giving first-hand is what’s needed in the near-term as an experiential lens through which larger gifts and his own passion for potential systemic change can be discovered personally.


Elijah Lutwama, head of finance at the Agency for Cooperation and Research in Development in Kenya

There are a number of short-term needs that take away people’s ability to be actors in their own destiny. The world today has many disasters both man-made and natural that strike individuals, families, and communities. It derails their ongoing livelihood mechanisms and, depending on the ferocity with which it strikes, even depletes their strength to carry on.

There is a need to ensure that there are stable and sustained resources to provide help when it’s needed most, to rebuild communities and reignite their sources of resilience.

Interventions that allow people to rebuild and develop themselves have a long-term impact.


In Favor of a Long-Term Focus


Leslie Maloney, senior vice president and education-program manager at the Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr./ U.S. Bank Foundation

I have found that often short-term fixes only address the symptoms — Band-Aid fixes that do not alter the long-term root causes that create the symptoms. We heard it from one student at Berea College who grew up with his grandparents and was often homeless. When asked if his family availed themselves of social services, he said yes, but they were only Band-Aids — they did not change his family situation.

The societal problems we face today have occurred over the long term and require long-term solutions to have impact. It is hard to stay focused on issues when all you see is incremental change.


Michelle Goodwin, vice president of advancement at the College of Southern Maryland and executive director of the CSM Foundation

Impact is the answer, and the horizon is as different for the many different causes as there are opportunities for change. Focus more on the level of impact and the sustainability of that impact.

For example: A partial scholarship of $2,000 can make a difference between attending college or not, especially for community-college students. One of those students may be the next Walt Disney or Tom Hanks, both community-college graduates.


Greta Rios, president of Ollin, Jóvenes en Movimiento, a Mexican charity

All efforts need to be focused on creating change at the system level. We need to invest in addressing those causes, not their effects.

Send an e-mail to Cody Switzer.