Jeff Bezos transformed the modern economy, using disruptive thinking to reshape how people buy products and read books, and how companies access computing and deliver goods.
Now, the 54-year-old founder of Amazon and the Blue Origin space venture — a hard-charging sci-fi geek with a giant laugh who earlier this year earned the title of the richest person on the planet — is exploring new terrain: deciding how to give away a chunk of his record-breaking fortune, now estimated at a mind-boggling $160 billion as Amazon’s market value topped $1 trillion for a short period this past week.
The path Bezos chooses for his philanthropic efforts could alter society in unimagined ways, just as Andrew Carnegie did a century ago and as fellow Seattle billionaire Bill Gates is attempting to do today.
And yet very few have direct insights into which issues the mercurial billionaire will tackle.
Health care? Education? Climate change? Homelessness? Political reform?
Societal and environmental challenges abound, and Bezos — with the wealth equivalent of the countries of Croatia, Costa Rica and Bolivia combined — can do something about them.
This much is certain: reflecting on Bezos’ past moves, his philanthropic efforts will be unconventional.
“Jeff has changed the world once,” said Ed Lazowska, a professor in the University of Washington’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering, which Bezos and Amazon have supported through donations and endowments. “In the fullness of time, he will change the world again multiple times.”
For years, Bezos was a relative no-show when it came to philanthropy. The Bezos name was associated with a scant number of charitable causes around his adopted hometown of Seattle, and few in the non-profit world knew where he stood on do-gooding causes.
But things started to change last summer — in a potentially big way.
On June 15, 2017 Bezos turned the philanthropic world on its head, issuing a tweet soliciting suggestions for his charitable giving.
Some 48,000 responses later, Bezos now says he has “settled on two areas that I’m very excited about.” He promised to announce the ideas “before the end of this summer” — which, according to the calendar, means he’s given himself until Sept. 22 to disclose to the world what he plans to take on.
The multibillion-dollar question now is, which lucky causes have made the cut?
And beyond that, does this mark an important step toward an overarching philanthropic effort — like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and its work in global health and education, or the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation and the Microsoft co-founder’s support for brain science, artificial intelligence and Seattle philanthropy? Or will these to-be-revealed initiatives remain on par with Bezos’ past record of more modest giving?
“The backdrop to all of this is that if he wants to make a dent in giving away his money while he’s still alive, he needs to start now and stick at it for the rest of his life at a pretty urgent pace,” said David Callahan, editor of Inside Philanthropy, a charity watchdog site.
So far, Bezos has shaved off only a tiny sliver of his holdings.
Over the past decade, Bezos and his family have donated $65 million to Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, with a focus on immunotherapy initiatives. In January, Bezos and his wife, MacKenzie Bezos, gave $33 million to TheDream.US, an organization providing scholarships for immigrants (Bezos’ father migrated to the U.S. from Cuba). In August, he donated nearly $11 million of Amazon stock to an unspecified nonprofit, according to an SEC filing and local press coverage. (Bezos and his family did not respond to requests made through Amazon for comment for this article.)
In total, Bezos and his family have donated roughly $135 million to charitable causes, based on news reports and press releases. For a mere mortal, it’s an impressive sum. For Bezos, it’s 0.09 percent of his worth. By comparison, Gates, the runner-up for the richest person, has given away stock holdings worth $50 billion, according to Bloomberg.
But the Amazon CEO is starting to shell out more of his money. The question is whether one views the spending as philanthropic.
‘The most important work I’m doing’
In 2016, Bezos said that he’d invested $500 million to date in Blue Origin, a Kent, Wash.-based company that’s developing re-usable rockets and whose stated vision is to support “millions of people living and working in space.” Then, last year, he announced that he was selling $1 billion worth of Amazon stock to fund his space venture, and that he’d match that amount for years to come.
Bezos has been a self-proclaimed space junkie since his early years. At age 5, he remembers watching his parents’ black-and-white TV as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. Friends and teachers from his high school days recall his passion for space, and as a teen he attended a space-related program at a NASA center in Huntsville, Alabama, according to Wired Magazine. Jump ahead a few decades, and the star-gazing billionaire even appeared as an extra in the filming of “Star Trek Beyond” in 2016.
That the adult Bezos would circle back around to space-related enterprises comes as no surprise to Valerie Conn, executive director of the Palo Alto, Calif.-based Science Philanthropy Alliance, an organization assisting science-minded donors.
“A 12-year-old girl’s or a 12-year-old boy’s passion often comes out in philanthropy years or decades later,” Conn said.
There has been increasing interest in charitable giving to basic research, including medicine, physics, biology and science technology, Conn said. That focus is particularly prevalent among those who made their riches in the tech sector.
With his spending on Blue Origin, “it shows that [Bezos] is willing to invest for long-term outcomes, to build infrastructure and to explore that scientific curiosity and also pursue his passion,” Conn said. “That goes back to the passion-driven philanthropy concept.”
But is blasting people off the planet serving a humanitarian cause, or simply indulging the inquisitiveness and ego of an absurdly wealthy man?
In a May interview with GeekWire’s Alan Boyle, Bezos described Blue Origin as both a charitable enterprise and a business, calling it “the most important work I’m doing.” As our energy demands outpace our terrestrial, clean power sources, Bezos sees space as a solution. He imagines making heavy industrial activity extraterrestrial and preserving the Earth for people to live on and for light industrial work.
“We will have to leave this planet, and we’re going to leave it,” Bezos said, “and it’s going to make this planet better.”
(A spokesperson for Blue Origin declined a request for a comment for this story.)
Bezos’ intergalactic vision for humanity’s salvation has, however, triggered some public derision. Through social media, critics have called on Bezos to pursue a more conventional approach to philanthropy, aiding people on Earth here and now. In a recent GeekWire interview, Nick Hanauer, an early investor in Amazon, praised Bezos as “an extraordinary commercial entrepreneur and a deeply insightful and strategic thinker,” but questioned his “moral reasoning.”
And yet Bezos’ blurring of philanthropy with a mission-focused business venture is not actually so rare, some in the nonprofit world say.
“It’s like a lot of these tech people. They’re techno-utopians and they think that business and technology are as powerful as anything in terms of its potential to improve humanity,” Inside Philanthropy’s Callahan said.
“Many of them view the nonprofit sector as traditional forms of civil society and philanthropy as being little sideshows of yesterday’s means,” he said. “A lot of these people really blend business in with their vision of social good.”
Charity closer to home
Bezos’ love of outer space shines brighter than a noonday sun. But if you follow the digital breadcrumbs found in his tweets and news articles, it leads to another, more surprising cause that appears to have captivated the CEO of Amazon: families experiencing homelessness.
Seattle and neighboring communities are in the throes of a homelessness crisis. On a single night this past January, volunteers surveying King County, which includes Seattle, counted 12,112 people as homeless.
In response, Amazon has teamed up with a Seattle nonprofit called Mary’s Place that aids homeless families. More than two years ago, the company began temporarily housing the families in a former Travelodge motel that was slated for demolition and the construction of Amazon office space.
The partnership evolved beyond providing shelter, and includes regular interactions between Amazon workers and families in need. Employees prepare meals and provide tutoring and career support. The company has hosted a summer BBQ for the families and a Christmas event with toys for the children.
“I’m very inspired and moved by the work done at Mary’s Place here in Seattle,” Bezos tweeted last year in his call for philanthropic ideas.
Amazon as a corporation has supported additional Seattle-area initiatives, including construction of a second UW Computer Science & Engineering building championed by Lazowska, and Code.org, a Seattle-based nonprofit spreading computer science education internationally. But these and other efforts funded by Bezos’ family or Amazon do not seem to have captured his attention in the same way.
In his April interview with Business Insider, he returned again to Mary’s Place. He praised the nonprofit for helping formerly homeless people become “perfectly productive members of society.”
Last year Amazon announced new initiatives to help Mary’s Place, including building a permanent shelter for 70 to 100 families a night. The shelter, to be located inside an Amazon building, will open in 2020.
It’s an interesting collaboration, intersecting the orbits of families who are homeless with more affluent tech workers who are helping drive up rental and real estate prices that make affordable housing harder to come by. And this spring, Amazon fought a Seattle head tax on employees intended to raise money to address homelessness. The company temporarily ceased construction on one of its downtown office buildings in protest. City leaders repealed the tax shortly after approving it.
Marty Hartman, executive director of Mary’s Place, doesn’t weigh into the politics or possible future support from Bezos. She is, of course, grateful for Amazon’s partnership.
“We just count every day as a gift and [Bezos’] words are creating change in our community,” she said. “It’s creating change for these families and he has brought a spotlight and he has given the rest of the nation an opportunity and an actual concept of how to solve this in their community, how to make sure no child sleeps outside.”
Some hope that Bezos could take his interest a step further and apply his outside-the-box, visionary mojo to drive more dramatic solutions.
“You can imagine that there is somewhere out there a clever strategy for dealing with homelessness that nobody has thought of,” said Lazowska, the UW’s Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering. “That is an example where none of the obvious things are working. Is there some crazy-ass idea that would tackle this problem?”
Which way to charity?
For all of his unconventional traits, Bezos so far has followed a pretty typical philanthropic path.
He has pursued a diverse portfolio of causes, many of which have personal or passion-driven connections.
He has melded traditional charity with investing that serves a greater good. Beyond Blue Origin, that includes support for the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, a group of investors funding clean energy developments; his 2013 purchase of the Washington Post for $250 million, which some view as quasi-philanthropic, given the importance of a free press; and his $42 million contribution towards a clock to keep time for 10,000 years.
“It’s a special clock,” Bezos writes on the project website, “designed to be a symbol, an icon for long-term thinking.”
Even his slow pace of giving hews to a route followed by some donors. Bezos has an umbrella company called Bezos Expeditions to oversee many of his initiatives and philanthropic activities, but he doesn’t yet have a dedicated personal foundation, serving only as a board member of the Bezos Family Foundation, which his parents founded and lead. Nor has he signed the Giving Pledge, an initiative by the Gateses and Warren Buffett, through which the mega rich commit to giving away most of their fortunes.
Effectively doling out massive amounts of money, it turns out, is time-consuming, hard work. Other wealthy tech entrepreneurs have partnered with family members to manage their philanthropy. Bill Gates teamed up with his dad, Bill Sr., and wife, Melinda. Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, are co-founders of the Chan Zuckerberg Foundation. Jody Allen, sister of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, is the co-founder of their foundation.
Could MacKenzie Bezos take a leading role in distributing the Bezos’ largesse? MacKenzie, mother of four and author of two books, took a step into the nonprofit sector in 2014. She launched Bystander Revolution, an online resource for anti-bullying efforts featuring video testimonials from dozens of celebrity actors, musicians, authors and athletes.
“If the main person who made the money is still busy with their day job, [philanthropy] takes a lot of bandwidth, and often you see the spouses doing the heavy lifting,” Callahan said. “Jeff Bezos gets all of the attention because everybody knows him and he made the money, but it could be that MacKenzie is behind the scenes doing all the work.”
In comparison, Gates was already well on his way philanthropically by age 45, stepping down from Microsoft’s CEO role and creating a joint foundation with Melinda. At that point, Gates had led Microsoft for roughly 25 years — about the same amount of time that Bezos has been running Amazon.
Could Bezos be ready at last to go boldly into the world of philanthropy? It’s possible.
“A lot of philanthropists will give at a small level, see what they learn and try to ramp up from there,” Callahan said. “They want to experiment at first, before they get their sea legs. Before they make huge commitments.”