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Bezos and Boyle
Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and Blue Origin, discusses his vision for space settlement with GeekWire’s Alan Boyle at the International Space Development Conference in Los Angeles. (Keith Zacharski / In The Barrel Photo)

After a year of deliberation and thought, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos announced plans to back two philanthropic initiatives, potentially signaling a new chapter for the planet’s richest person.

Bezos’ fortune — which has risen in recent years as Amazon has expanded beyond online retail and cloud computing into a number of other industries — stood at $112 billion earlier this year, according to Forbes. That even eclipsed fellow Seattle billionaire Bill Gates, the Microsoft co-founder who has established one of the most important philanthropic organizations in the world: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Bezos comments, posted in a Tweet, come a day after Seattle killed its short-lived tax on big business — a defeat at the hands of Amazon and others in the business community who considered it the wrong approach to curbing homelessness.

That timing could suggest that one of the causes may be tied to homelessness or housing affordability, issues plaguing Amazon’s hometown. Bezos, who has often drawn criticism for his lack of philanthropic giving, didn’t specify which issues he would support but said he would reveal details by the end of the summer.

Bezos thanked his followers for their feedback and said he is “very excited” about the mysterious initiatives.

A year ago, Bezos turned to Twitter to request ideas on how he should focus his philanthropy from his followers.

In an April interview with Business Insider, Bezos said that Amazon’s work with Mary’s Place, a Seattle homeless shelter, “really impacted” his thinking on philanthropy.

“I’m finding I am very motivated by the here and now,” he said. “Seeing a lot of the homelessness that Mary’s Place works on is transient homelessness … a woman with kids, the father runs away and he was the only person providing any income. They have no support system; they have no family. That’s transient homelessness. You can really help that person, and by the way, you only have to help them for six to nine months. You get them trained. You get them a job. They are perfectly productive members of society.”

Amazon’s partnership with Mary’s Place, which includes a permanent shelter at the company’s Seattle headquarters, is a relatively recent development. The company has been criticized for its lack of a philanthropic appetite, particularly when compared to the strong public service reputation of Microsoft and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Amazon’s hard-line stance in Seattle’s head tax battle over the past two months has added fuel to the flames. Bezos’s tweet could be in response to the criticism but it’s also possible that he is setting his sights on causes other than homelessness. His family foundation has donated about $30 million to Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center over the past decade and it is the namesake of the center’s new Immunotherapy Clinic.

Bezos also sees his space travel work with Blue Origin to be an altruistic mission. In an on-stage interview with GeekWire’s Alan Boyle at a space conference in May, he said extraterrestrial colonies will be necessary to preserve the health of our planet.

“We will have to leave this planet, and we’re going to leave it, and it’s going to make this planet better,” Bezos said.

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