News and analysis
June 15, 2017

Jeff Bezos Says Helping the Neediest Now May Be Where His Philanthropy Goes

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Jeff Bezos, one of the world’s wealthiest business leaders, hasn’t given big sums to charities yet, but he signaled today that he is ready to do so — and made clear that he is more interested in giving money to charities that directly help people in desperation than in building institutions that will last for generations.

The announcement came in an unusual way: The Amazon founder posted a tweet soliciting advice on where to concentrate his philanthropy. Mr. Bezos’s open-source call for ideas did not provide clues to how much he will eventually donate or when, but he asked what people thought about the value of helping people who are currently in need.

"I’m thinking about a philanthropy strategy that is the opposite of how I mostly spend my time — working on the long-term," Mr. Bezos wrote. "For my philanthropy, I find I’m drawn to the other end of the spectrum: the right now."

As an example of how philanthropy can make a direct, immediate impact, Mr. Bezos points to Mary’s Place, a homeless shelter for women and their children in Seattle, where Amazon is located.

As owner of Amazon, The Washington Post, and Blue Origin, an aerospace company working to develop commercial space travel, Mr. Bezos said in the tweet that he is often focused on projects or goals that can take years to come to fruition.

His philanthropy, he said, is likely to be devoted to helping "people in the here and now — short term — at the intersection of urgent need and lasting impact."

Advice From Charities

By asking for feedback on Twitter, Mr. Bezos has indicated he wants to hear from people on the front lines of charitable work, says Melissa Berman, president of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. It also, she said, sets a high bar for what sort of effort he’ll make."Going public in a tweet creates a high set of expectations," she said. "People may well be disappointed if they don’t see anything significant."

Ms. Berman said focusing on immediate needs often doesn’t have a lasting impact. But there are exceptions. For instance, devoting funds to combat early childhood malnutrition could pay dividends in public health and education over time.

But progress on most social problems, she said, takes years.Her advice to Mr. Bezos: "You have the resources to look at both urgent needs and lasting impact," she said. "There’s no reason not to pursue both strategies in parallel."

Many current philanthropic efforts have set audacious goals, envision a long legacy of work, and attempt to incorporate a scientific, data-driven approach to giving, said Benjamin Soskis, a research associate at the Urban Institute’s Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy.

For instance, when they founded the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a limited-liability corporation with a philanthropic mission, Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, wrote that some of their causes, like eliminating inequality and curing disease, could take 100 years. The work, they said, would be driven by technology.

Mr. Bezos, on the other hand, has taken a more humble approach, according to Mr. Soskis. By suggesting his wealth should go to immediate needs, Mr. Bezos is responding to a more "primal" charitable urge.

The approach is a challenge to current practices that "look somewhat dismissively at charity’s aim to relieve immediate, short-term ills," Mr. Soskis said.

Mark Kramer, co-founder of FSG, a consulting group, said short-term philanthropic efforts often have a more predictable outcome. Long-term investments carry more risk, he said, but can sometimes solve bigger problems.

"There’s a need for both," he said. Money today given to direct services helps make life better for many people. Large institutions with long time horizons have the opportunity to do more, but it’s not necessarily better."

‘Minor Player’

According to Forbes, Mr. Bezos’s net worth exceeds $82 billion. Unlike some other tech billionaires, such as his Seattle neighbor Bill Gates, Mr. Bezos has not signed the Giving Pledge, a promise made by 169 ultrawealthy people that they will give away most of their fortunes during their lives.

Some have criticized Mr. Bezos’s low-profile giving. A Seattle Times story in 2012, for instance, called the business titan a "minor player" in local philanthropy.

Over the past decade, Mr. Bezos’s publicized gifts, which include donations from him and his wife, MacKenzie, and other relatives, total $102 million, according to reports compiled by The Chronicle.

Those gifts include $55 million to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, $10 million to the Museum of History & Industry in Seattle to create a Center for Innovation to teach young people about the importance of improving the industrial process, and $15 million to create the Bezos Center for Neural Circuit Dynamics

Most recently, in May, Mr. Bezos gave $1 million to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

In his call for ideas, Mr. Bezos instructed people to reply to his tweet with proposals. He said he’s open to criticism, too.

"If you think this approach is wrong, would love to hear that, too," he wrote.

Bezos Family Giving

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and his family have given at least $102 million publicly to nonprofits since 2009.

Date DonorsAmountRecipientNotes
11/30/09 Bezos family $10 million Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (Seattle) Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, in Seattle, has received a pledge of $10-million from the Bezos family, who are related to Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos. The challenge gift, which promises a 2:1 match for donations that are received through the end of the year and a 1:1 match after, will support immunotherapy research to treat cancer and to recruit researchers.
8/19/11 Jeff Bezos $10 million Museum of History & Industry (Seattle) Museum of History & Industry, in Seattle, has received a gift of $10-million from Jeff Bezos, founder and chief executive officer of Amazon.com, based in Seattle, to create a Center for Innovation to teach young people about the importance of industrial innovation.
12/14/11 Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos $15 million Princeton U. (N.J.) Princeton U. (N.J.) has received a pledge of $15-million from Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos to create the Bezos Center for Neural Circuit Dynamics within the Princeton Neuroscience Institute. Mr. Bezos is the founder and chief executive officer of Amazon.com and earned a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering and computer science from the university in 1986. Ms. Bezos earned a bachelor's degree in English from Princeton in 1992.
4/7/14 Bezos family $20 million Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (Seattle) Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (Seattle) has received a gift of $20-million from the Bezos family for immunotherapy research. Jeff Bezos is the founder and chief executive of Amazon.com. In 2009, the family made a $10-million challenge gift for this same purpose.
5/27/14 Bezos Family Foundation (Bezos family) $10 million U. of Washington, Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences (Seattle) U. of Washington, Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences (Seattle), in Seattle, has received $10-million from the Bezos Family Foundation for the Ready Mind Project, to study how and when children learn. The family is related to Jeff Bezos, founder and chief executive of Amazon.com.
5/3/16 Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos $1 million Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African American History and Culture (Washington) $1-million gift from Jeff Bezos, founder and chief executive officer of Amazon.com, and his wife, MacKenzie, for its capital campaign.
3/30/17 Bezos family $35 million Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (Seattle) Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (Seattle) has received a gift of $35 million from the Bezos family to support translational data science, research into pathogen-related cancers, and transplantation and immunotherapy programs. The donation is from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, his wife, MacKenzie, and his parents and siblings.
5/24/17 Jeff Bezos $1 million Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (Washington) $1-million gift from Jeff Bezos to expand its programs and offer legal and educational services to more journalists, documentarians, and news organizations. Mr. Bezos is the founder and chief executive officer of Amazon.com and owner of the Washington Post.

Source: The Chronicle of Philanthropy

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