• Business

What Jeff Bezos’ Philanthropy Tells Us About His New Priorities—and What Change They May Bring

7 minute read

Money is power, so when the world’s richest man begins to spend his fortune, it’s worth paying attention to what he’s doing. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and newly minted pseudo-astronaut, has a lot of money to spend. On July 19, the day before he took a 10 minute joyride 66 miles (106 km) above the earth, his wealth increased by $13 billion, thanks to a bump in the Amazon’s share price. That flight cost $5.5 billion which, as global change groups hastened to point out, could have paid for a lot of global change. But for Bezos, it was not quite half the previous day’s wages.

Bezos announced in his post-flight press conference that he was donating $100 million to two high profile founders of non-profits: the celebrity chef (and former TIME cover subject) José Andrés, and Van Jones, the former Obama green jobs czar, CNN commentator and prominent climate change activist, to do as he said “what they want with.” The two donations were the inaugurating gifts of a Courage and Civility Award that Bezos was creating. “We need unifiers and not vilifiers,” Bezos said. “We need people who argue hard and act hard for what they believe. But they do that always with civility and never ad hominem attacks. Unfortunately, we live in a world where this is too often not the case.”

Until recently, Bezos had drawn considerable criticism for his desultory appetite for philanthropy. Polls make it clear that since America’s tax system largely protects income that is accrued via the growth of existing wealth and thus rewards the rich, its inhabitants also expect that their richer fellow citizens should be generous in spreading around their surplus. However, the very wealthy are also criticized when they do donate money because their money effects social change and that change needs to be thoughtfully managed. Perhaps because of this dichotomy, Bezos has been long on promises but delivered about $1.5 billion in actual funds, about 0.7% of his wealth. He is also one of the few mega-wealthy individuals who has not signed the Giving Pledge, a promise to give at least half of one’s wealth away.

There are those in the philanthropy industry who don’t find his reticence to spend unreasonable. “The fact that he didn’t do a lot of philanthropy up until now is kind of understandable,” says Brad Smith, president of Candid, an organization that monitors the charitable sector. “If you look at the old generation of philanthropists like Rockefeller and Carnegie, they pretty much built their businesses and then at some ripe age retired and became philanthropists.”

Others feel he still has some figuring out to do. “The most significant thing about Bezos’ philanthropy is the weird tension between its scale and its strange lack of consequence,” says Benjamin Soskis, who researches philanthropy for the Urban Institute. “He’s committed a large amount of money. But it still feels very, very half-baked.” Compared to the approach taken by Bill Gates or Bezos’ ex-wife MacKenzie Scott, who has also made headlines for her recent giving—or even Bezos’ own approach to his business— the billionaire’s giving feels slapdash, says Soskis. “I have a sense of an inchoate donor, somebody whose philanthropic identity has not fully congealed yet.”

Let the record show that Bezos has been thinking about how to give his money away at least since 2017, when he asked for public input about how to operate “at the intersection of urgent need and lasting impact.” His two new recipients each seem to fulfill one of those aims: Andrés is known for arriving at the sites of recent disasters and feeding people with his organization World Central Kitchen; and Jones has started several non-profits, most notably Dream Corps, that seek to move the needle on such big sociological issues as climate change, inequitable incarceration and racial equity.

It’s not apparent whether Jones and Andrés applied for the funding, although Bezos had earlier pledged to support Jones’ environmental organization. It also comes with very few strings attached, which communicates a high level of trust in the grantees. “You bet on me and I appreciate it,” Jones told Bezos. “And I appreciate you for lifting the ceilings off people’s dreams.” This reminded many in the philanthropic world of Scott’s style of giving.

Read More: MacKenzie Scott Gave Away $6 Billion Last Year. It’s Not as Easy as It Looks

But the similarities between the former couple end there. Scott tends to make her gifts quietly, with an almost reluctant don’t-look-at-me post on Medium to announce the gifts, while Bezos announces his at moments of intense public scrutiny. And while Scott spreads her wealth with precision, Bezos tends to use shock-and-awe dumps of money. A week before unloading $100 million each on Jones and Andrés, he committed $200 million to D.C.’s Smithsonian museum and last year made the largest single philanthropic pledge of 2020, launching the Earth Fund, a climate change charity, with a promise of $10 billion. It joins the Bezos Day One fund, announced with a $2 billion pledge in 2018, (when he was still married to Scott,) which addresses homelessness and education.

This blockbuster approach of announcing massive initiatives and then figuring out the details is not necessarily better or worse, say some philanthropic experts. “I think he’s thinking about the size of the gifts in terms of messaging,” says Candid’s Smith. “When he drops these $100 million chunks, he’s making a big statement about climate change, just like he seemed to be making a big statement [on July 20] about civility.” There’s a precedent for this too, notes Smith. “We’ve seen this at different moments in history with philanthropy when governments and societies seem to be in gridlock and at an impasse, philanthropists will step forward and say ‘Dammit, this is important.'” Ted Turner did this in 2000, when Congress could not agree whether to pay the money the U.S. owed to the U.N. and he paid it.

One thing is clear about Bezos’ spending priorities. He sees a future in space both for his commercial and philanthropic investment. His space tourism business is off to a robust start. And buried in the details of the 2020 Earth Fund grants are the finer points of how his investments are to be spent. The World Resources Institute got $100 million partly to “to develop a satellite-based monitoring system to advance natural climate solutions around the world” and the Environmental Defense Fund got the same amount, to help further the “completion and launch of MethaneSAT, a satellite that will… locate and measure sources of methane pollution around the world.” He sees space travel as a crucial part of solving the climate puzzle.

This is not to say that Bezos is not also splashing around some money on problems right here on Earth. But it does not seem to be his first love. “You can make a valid case for space philanthropy if you’re not seen as ignoring the rest of the Earthbound populace,” says the Urban Institute’s Soskis. He is reminded of a concept Charles Dickens advanced in Bleak House: telescopic philanthropy. “People love to direct their philanthropic gaze to foreign shores as a way of ignoring what’s proximate and potentially most implicates them,” says Soskis. “I think Bezos has opened himself up to that critique.”


More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com