Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has unveiled his eagerly-awaited philanthropic initiative, announcing a new “Bezos Day One Fund” that will focus on efforts to help homeless families and improve preschool education, with an initial commitment of $2 billion.
— Jeff Bezos (@JeffBezos) September 13, 2018
As promised in an earlier tweet, the new endeavor focuses on two areas: “funding existing non-profits that help homeless families, and creating a network of new, non-profit, tier-one preschools in low-income communities,” he wrote.
“Day One” is a reference to Bezos’ mantra at Amazon, that it’s essential to approach every day with the enthusiasm and energy of a new venture because it’s “always Day One.”
Even beyond the name of the fund, Bezos made clear his intent to carry over his business values into the world of philanthropy.
“We’ll use the same set of principles that have driven Amazon. Most important among those will be genuine, intense customer obsession,” he tweeted. “The child will be the customer.”
The news received largely positive reactions from the philanthropic sector, but there were some concerns as well. Bezos was praised for contributing to organizations tackling homelessness — a cause frequently overlooked by wealthy donors — and for supporting existing efforts, as well as for bringing needed attention to early education. Some experts expressed concern about his eagerness to apply a business mentality to nonprofits, and questioned how that will take shape. Others cautioned that while risk-taking innovation has merits, preschool-age students are playing the role of guinea pigs in this experiment.
Bezos announced the creation of the Day 1 Academies Fund that “will launch and operate a network of high-quality, full-scholarship, Montessori-inspired preschools in underserved communities.”
On the homelessness side, the Day 1 Families Fund “will issue annual leadership awards to organizations and civic groups doing compassionate, needle-moving work to provide shelter and hunger support to address the immediate needs of young families,” he wrote. He cited the vision statement of Seattle-based non-profit Mary’s Place as inspiration: “no child sleeps outside.”
With Amazon’s market value soaring to $1 trillion, Bezos has become the richest person in the world, with an estimated net worth of more than $160 billion, positioning him to make a major impact on the world impact with his new philanthropic pursuits. His contribution of $2 billion to the fund represents a little more than 1 percent of his fortune.
As reported by GeekWire this week in a story previewing the Amazon founder’s decision, “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.”
RELATED: ‘The child will be the customer’: How billionaire Jeff Bezos will bring a key Amazon value to philanthropy
But experts in philanthropy caution that success on Wall Street doesn’t always translate to wins in the non-profit sector.
CEO philanthropists “think that their past experiences and knowledge of business is going to give them some big advantage to solving entrenched problems that have been around for decades … and often they find out the hard way that that is not the case,” said David Callahan, editor of Inside Philanthropy, a charity watchdog site.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in particular, has been criticized for missteps in their education funding, making Bezos’ decision to tackle that issue even more interesting. One of the key concerns is that while charities can explore new solutions in bold ways that publicly funded government programs often cannot, it also means that kids are the ones testing the ideas.
“You are taking risks with peoples’ lives here,” Callahan said.
Jessie Rasmussen, CEO of the Buffett Early Childhood Fund, countered that the risk is minimal.
“Your baseline first and foremost is a high-quality program for the families and the children, and you don’t vary from that,” Rasmussen said. “But you do experiment with new ideas.”
That might mean trying new ways to coach teachers to be more effective in the classroom, or strategizing better ways to teach science.
“The fact that he is making this big of an investment means it will be a real accelerator,” Rasmussen said, demonstrating to other foundations that this is a smart philanthropic investment and potentially spurring public-private partnerships. “I’m just so excited that he’s doing this. It is so clear from the brain science and other research that the earliest months and years in life matter.”
With his homelessness initiative, Bezos seems to be taking a somewhat more cautious approach, supporting existing nonprofits already working on the problem rather than proposing the creation of his own organization.
Homelessness traditionally has received less attention and money from the super wealthy, said Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Organizations working on the issue have fewer resources than a university, for example, that can woo donors with the promise of their name on a building.
“It’s very thoughtful on Bezos’ part to find ways to make sure the money is well used and giving it to existing groups,” Palmer said.
Marty Hartman, executive director of Mary’s Place, cheered Bezos’ news Thursday morning.
“We’re excited about Jeff and [his wife] MacKenzie’s announcement! Their Day One Fund to provide education and shelter for children and families will change lives for generations to come,” said Hartman by email. “Jeff, MacKenzie and our entire Amazon family have always shared our goal of ensuring that ‘No Child Sleeps Outside’ and have been so generous with buildings, funding and lots and lots of volunteer and pro bono support. They are truly modeling how our community can come together to make things better!”
Whether they will receive additional funding is unknown. “We don’t have any specifics, we didn’t know about the announcement,” she said, “but we look forward to continuing our strong relationship with Amazon, and now the Day One Fund, to bring families and children inside.”
While there has been much anticipation around Bezos’ announcement, his tweet was short on important details. That includes who will be running the fund and where its operations will be based; who helped guide the decision to settle on these two focus areas; and how soon the fund will begin issuing grants to organizations that are helping families who are homeless or when they could start opening schools.
Paperwork filed the day before the fund was announced suggest the initiative will be based in Washington. The Seattle law firm Perkins Coie submitted applications with Washington’s Secretary of State to reserve the names Bezos Day 1 Academies, Bezos Day 1 Foundation, Day 1 Academies and Day 1 Foundation. Each was identified as a nonprofit corporation.
There is a possibility of collaboration between the new fund and the existing Bezos Family Foundation. The foundation, which was created and is run by Bezos’ parents, supports programs providing tools for early education and brain development in young children.
“The education programs that they’ve run so far [through the foundation] are getting praise, so hopefully they’re building on that,” Palmer said. “People talk about it really often as a model. It’s drawn a lot of attention in philanthropic circles as something to emulate.”
For years, Bezos was a relative no-show when it came to philanthropy, although that has started to change in recent years. In June 2017, the Amazon founder signaled that he was ready to start doubling down on charity, issuing a tweet soliciting suggestions for his giving.
As part of his message, he singled out homelessness as something that he is particularly interested in, pointing to the work of Seattle nonprofit Mary’s Place, which shelters and aids homeless families. The Amazon corporation has partnered with Mary’s Place on a variety of initiatives, and is creating a permanent facility for the nonprofit inside one of its new buildings. “I’m very inspired and moved by the work done at Mary’s Place here in Seattle,” he wrote.
To date, Bezos and his family have donated about $135 million to charitable causes, based on GeekWire’s estimates from news reports and announcements.
Until today, that has paled in comparison to what he has invested in Blue Origin, his commercial space company. Bezos has contributed about $1.5 billion to the enterprise, and last year he announced that he would be pouring an additional $1 billion per year into the space venture going forward. Blue Origin’s mission is to support “millions of people living and working in space.” Bezos has described the venture as both business and philanthropy, calling it in a GeekWire interview “the most important work I’m doing.”
Two other notable Seattle-area tech entrepreneurs, both co-founders of Microsoft, have made deep and long philanthropic strides through their foundations. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has done work in global health and education, and the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation has been part of Paul Allen’s support for brain science, artificial intelligence, and the arts.
Palmer noted that it was interesting that Bezos, who is also the owner of the Washington Post, is steering clear of political issues with his fund. She contrasted that move with the paths famously taken by the Koch brothers, who have funded numerous conservative political causes, or George Soros and his support of progressive politics.
Earlier this year, Amazon found itself at the center of a heated debate over the issue of homelessness. The Seattle City Council unanimously approved a per-employee tax on Seattle’s top-grossing businesses to raise funds for affordable housing. Amazon fought the tax in the weeks before and after its passage, threatening to slow its growth in Seattle because of the city’s “anti-business positions.” Amazon, Allen’s Vulcan and others donated thousands to a referendum campaign on the tax, leading the council to quickly repeal it in a dramatic about-face.
Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, a driving force behind the tax, criticized Amazon and Bezos for “ruthlessly exploitative practices during the Tax Amazon struggle” in a statement tied to the announcement Monday.
“Bezos is now attempting to mitigate his image,” she said.
As Bezos launches his philanthropic venture, one wonders how his entrepreneurial mantra about the importance of being “willing to be misunderstood for long periods of time” will be reflected in the fund. Will he play it a little safer in this case?
Callahan suggested that Bezos may have been wise to start with an easier problem than U.S. education. Consider that there are millions of children languishing in refugee camps internationally with little to no schooling being provided during an essential period of their development. That, said Callahan, is a place where someone could do tremendous good.
“Give them the basics,” he said, “before you start messing around with education in the world’s richest country.”
GeekWire reporters Frank Catalano and Monica Nickelsburg contributed to this report.