Jeff Bezos Says Giving Is Hard. That Trope Goes Back to Andrew Carnegie
Although Jeff Bezos and his partner Lauren Sánchez appeared frequently arm-in-arm in tabloid photos since they became a couple in 2019, until recently they had declined to sit together for a television interview. But in November, they decided to grant the honor to CNN. They wanted to draw attention to their selection of Dolly Parton as the second Bezos Courage and Civility Award winner — which came with a no-strings-attached $100 million gift. And yet during the interview, Bezos made news that overshadowed the award’s announcement. When asked if he was committed to give away the majority of his wealth during his life, Bezos answered, almost casually, that he was. It represented a pledge of up to $122 billion, his net worth at the time.
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Then, as if to tamp down expectations that he was about to unloose the philanthropic floodgates, Bezos began to riff on the challenges he faced as a donor. “The hard part is figuring out how to do it in a levered way,” he told CNN. “It’s not easy. Building Amazon was not easy. It took a lot of hard work, a bunch of very smart teammates, and I’m finding — and I think Lauren is finding the same thing — that philanthropy is very similar. It’s not easy. It’s really hard. And there are a bunch of ways, I think, that you can do ineffective things, too. So we’re building the capacity to be able to give away this money.”
Over the past decade, Bezos has undergone a metamorphosis from a tech entrepreneur maniacally focused on his company into the conventional, contemporary figure of the engaged mega-donor, whose public identity is largely defined by a commitment to giving away a fortune and making sure everyone knows how hard it is to do that job well.
In fact, for more than a century, an emphasis on that challenge has been a central component of the public image cultivated by the nation’s leading philanthropists. The “difficulty of giving” trope can represent some of the best of philanthropy, reflecting a donor’s dedication to a vocation approached with deliberateness and care. But, as its history makes clear, it can also represent some of the worst, spotlighting big donors’ imperious remove from the problems they seek to address. When invoked too zealously, it can deflect attention from what grantee leaders themselves often find most difficult about philanthropy: a lack of urgency, a failure to deliver resources expeditiously, and the imposition of burdensome restrictions.
The notion that giving is especially difficult first exploded in popularity in the United States at the end of the 19th century. It was linked to a more general shift in the previous decades in the ways that many within the business and professional classes had begun to talk about charitable giving. They stressed the need for active discrimination between the deserving and undeserving and regularly attacked charity that was driven by sentimental impulses. The leaders of a “scientific charity” movement especially warned against “the easy self-indulgence of giving to the beggar on the street,” as one of them explained in 1890, and suggested that if giving was not accompanied by some sort of mental exertion, there was a good chance that it was doing harm. The Lord might love the cheerful giver, but for these men and women, he was largely a figure of contempt.
Many of the leading industrialists of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era financed the scientific charity movement and adopted similar theories with respect to their own giving. This period also witnessed the emergence of a celebrity culture that focused on the wealthy, including on their charitable habits. This led to torrents of solicitations directed to men (and some women) of wealth, like John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and Olivia Sage. These “begging letters,” as they were popularly called, amplified the wealthy’s belief in the need for discrimination and their sense that the responsible stewardship of their fortunes represented a psychic burden. Rockefeller, for instance, revealed that the demands of conscientious giving nearly gave him a nervous breakdown and led him, as it did several of his peers, to hire charitable advisers and mediators to screen and vet applications. But even as these philanthropists relinquished some of the burden, they continued to make the idea that giving was onerous central to their public personas. The fact that giving was demanding was proof that they took their civic responsibilities seriously, which in turn was key to legitimizing their wealth.
The individual most responsible for popularizing the “difficulty of giving” trope was likely Andrew Carnegie. In fact, one can argue that his elevation of the idea ranks up there with his 1889 “Gospel of Wealth” essay in its impact on philanthropy discourse. In typical remarks, at a speech dedicating a library in Pittsburgh in 1895, Carnegie informed his audience, “The path of the philanthropist is difficult,” adding that “how to do genuine good and not mischief by the giving of money is one of the most difficult problems with which man has to deal.”
In those remarks, Carnegie related his oft-repeated belief that $950 of every $1,000 given in “so-called charity” would be better “thrown into the sea” because it would do more harm than good, pauperizing those it meant to help. And he insisted the same regarding paying his workers higher wages, insisting that the money would only “be frittered away, nine times out of 10, in things which pertain to the body and not to the spirit.” Better for Carnegie to amass the fortune, carry the burden of thinking deeply on its highest uses, and then give it away himself.
Two decades later, he was still working the same theme. “Pity the poor millionaire, for the way of the philanthropist is hard,” he wrote to the Independent in 1913. In these and other statements, he lumped together the difficult work of selecting beneficiaries with the travails of constantly being in the public eye, with unceasing demands for funds made on him.
But though Carnegie’s frustrations with the challenges of giving were probably quite real, articulating them also helped him legitimize his great wealth and social standing.
Perhaps more than any of the other major Gilded Age industrialists, Carnegie acknowledged that his fortune came as much from good luck and the work of those around him as from any special talent. Throughout his life, Carnegie worried that the apparent power of businessmen obscured their lack of control as they rose or sank at the mercy of economic laws. A strenuous commitment to philanthropy served as a “refuge from [such] self-questioning,” Carnegie admitted. And much as emphasizing how hard the industrialist worked to produce his fortune could obscure the role of luck in the accumulation, underscoring the difficulties of giving provided an additional stake to claims of ownership.
John D. Rockefeller didn’t think much of Carnegie’s approach to giving: He regarded much of it as showy, undisciplined, and unscientific. But this public recognition of the duty of shouldering the burden of philanthropy is one point at which they found common ground. In fact, Rockefeller titled the chapter in his autobiography in which he discussed his approach to philanthropy, “The Difficult Art of Giving.”
If the “difficulty of giving” trope became one of the most prominent in early 20th-century philanthropic discourse, it also became one of the most frequently ridiculed. There were plenty of Americans who had little pity to spare for the poor millionaire. A cartoon in the Baltimore Star, for instance, featured an expectant tramp standing beneath Rockefeller’s window, holding a large satchel, with the caption, “Did I understand you to say, Mr. Rockefeller, that wealth was a burden to you?” Henry Demarest Lloyd, whose Wealth Against Commonwealth had savaged Rockefeller, griped to a friend, “The wonder is that [Rockefeller] expects people to believe that sort of thing, and that they do believe it.”
There were, of course, other major donors of the period who didn’t believe that sort of thing. Tyrone Freeman, an Indiana University scholar, for instance, has differentiated the philanthropic approach of early 20th-century African American beauty mogul Madam C.J. Walker from her peers’ preoccupation with “scientific rationality.” Madam Walker, he writes, “articulated an inherent joy in giving not typically seen in the philanthropic treatises of her white contemporaries.”
It’s also worth noting that the “difficulty-of-giving trope” was especially well adapted for a period defined by living donors, who could play up the human drama that such trials entailed. As those donors died and the philanthropic landscape became increasingly dominated by legacy institutions staffed by salaried professionals, the belief that giving money away was difficult didn’t exactly dissipate (it implicitly justified their salaries!), but it became less central to the general discourse surrounding philanthropy.
It’s since made a comeback. In fact, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that over the past few decades, as mammoth fortunes have concentrated in the pockets of a handful of individuals and engaged living donors once again dominate the landscape, the difficulty-of-giving trope has undergone a resurgence. Recent campaigns for more strategic or effective giving have provided a boost. “In philanthropy, it’s much harder to give it away than to make it,” declared investor and mega-donor David Rubenstein. “Most philanthropists, even experienced ones,” a philanthropy adviser told Bloomberg News in 2007, “say that it’s harder to give money away effectively than it is to make it.” “The first and most fundamental lesson of effective altruism is that charity is hard,” Vox reporter Kelsey Piper recently explained. In Silicon Valley, there’s even a name for the “lag” between “the time that wealth is acquired and when [entrepreneurs] actually begin becoming more active donors”: “the pause.”
But it’s worth noting how frequently the difficulty-of-giving trope is now invoked for one particular purpose: to justify the philanthropist’s discretionary, and often slow, pacing of gifts, especially in light of the vastness of their wealth. Implicitly — and sometimes explicitly — billionaires are suggesting that you can’t rush the work required to find the right causes and approaches to giving away a fortune.
You could hear this argument in Bezos’s comments to CNN — it was like he was appending a codicil to the enormous multi-billion-dollar philanthropic pledge he had just made, one that would let the public know he planned to take his time with it. In fact, all the way back in 1996, among the reasons Bill Gates supplied in one interview for why his philanthropy had yet to make a dent in his personal fortune was that “giving away money effectively is almost as hard as earning it in the first place.” In case the point was lost, he added, “I’m many years away from wanting to divert a lot of my attention in that direction.”
A similar logic has persisted to this day. “The intelligent distribution of money for good can be a more challenging exercise than making money in the first place,” noted Jacob Harold, then vice president at Candid, a philanthropy research organization, in 2020, “and I think that’s why a lot of givers have not ramped up their giving.”
Much as during the turn of the last century, the difficulty-of-giving trope now faces some pushback, most significantly from a rising cadre of donors whose aim is to get money out the door as quickly as possible. It didn’t help that on the same day that Bezos gave his CNN interview, the leading practitioner of this “emptying the safe” approach to mega-philanthropy, his ex-wife MacKenzie Scott, announced gifts totaling over $2 billion that she had made in the previous seven months — a coincidence not lost on plenty of observers.
Yet it’s not the case that Scott proves that giving away lots of money isn’t hard. More precisely, it’s that she has resisted making that difficulty a central part of her public philanthropic identity. In part, that’s because she’s eschewed a formal giving bureaucracy and relied on anonymous advisers, so that much of the hard work involved in vetting potential grantees has happened behind very closed doors, and well before the gifts are announced. But it also likely has much to do with Scott’s stated aims to shift power and attention from the donor to the grantee and her appreciation that talk about the difficulty of giving has long played a part in bolstering the power and status of the donor.
After all, donors’ decisions to develop their own giving timelines, based on the risks involved in giving too hastily, carry risks of their own. There are opportunity costs in not giving, just as there are opportunity costs in making giving decisions too quickly. Donors have particular understandings of these trade-offs, but so do those seeking philanthropic funding. If giving sooner rather than later could lead to funding “ineffective things,” as Bezos worried, waiting to fund also means that potential grantees that could desperately use support now will not receive any and that opportunities for learning based on the results of donations made will be missed. And looking at the ways in which the fortunes of the wealthiest Americans who have pledged to donate most of their money to philanthropy have barely budged in recent years, it’s hard to think that the greatest danger we face is that of precipitous giving. At the very least, the talk of the burdens some carry through a commitment to careful, deliberate giving should always be matched with an appreciation of the burdens other bear waiting for those gifts.
The path of the philanthropist might be as difficult today as it was a century ago — though there are now hordes of consultants willing to walk alongside the donor to ease the way. These days, though, we have a greater appreciation for the fact that one of the most difficult things for a donor to do is actually to yield some of the power and control that comes with the prerogatives of the philanthropist, not just in terms of where funds are directed but in terms of the pace of that disbursement. If giving away lots of money is hard, it’s especially hard to do so in a way that tempers that drive to maintain control with a dose of humility.