Jeff Bezos Hints at Plans for Philanthropy

The decision by Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos to use Twitter to crowdsource ideas for his philanthropy suggests that the billionaire is planning to step up his giving, with a focus on near-term issues, the New York Times reports.

In a tweet Thursday afternoon — after the Times had reached out to Bezos for details on his giving — the tech billionaire told his more than two hundred and twenty thousand followers that he was considering a philanthropic strategy focused on the near term, in contrast to the often long-term investments he makes in for-profit companies. "I'm thinking I want much of my philanthropic activity to be helping people in the here and now — short term — at the intersection of urgent need and lasting impact," he wrote. While noting that Amazon; Blue Origin, his space exploration firm; and the Washington Post, which he purchased in 2013 for $250 million, "are contributing to society and civilization in their own ways," Bezos said he was inspired by Mary's Place, a homeless shelter for families in Seattle. Since April 2016, Mary's Place has had temporary use of a vacant building on Amazon's campus and will be given a permanent home in the company's new headquarters building.

The focus on the near term is unusual among major tech philanthropists, who often seek to fund solutions to persistent, long-term problems such as poverty, economic disparities, and educational achievement gaps. "I would call it surprising but welcome," Guidestar president Jacob Harold told the Times. "It's rare for big-dollar donors to be honest about their desire for short-term results."

Bezos did not indicate how much money he plans to commit to philanthropy. With a fortune estimated at more than $80 billion, his philanthropy to date has been relatively modest, the Times notes, and he is the only one of the five wealthiest men in America who has not signed the Giving Pledge, the campaign launched by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett to encourage billionaires to direct at least half their wealth to philanthropic and charitable endeavors. Based on what is known publicly, Bezos and his family have given about $100 million in total, including $15 million to his and his wife's alma mater, Princeton University, and gifts of $35 million and $20 million to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. The Bezos Family Foundation, which is funded with Amazon stock and is led by Bezos' mother, awarded about $20 million in grants in 2015.

"We know that he hasn't been very receptive to traditional philanthropy," said Steve Delfin, a philanthropy adviser in Washington, D.C., area. "My guess is that at some point, he will create an innovative new model or a hybrid approach. And maybe, like Amazon, he'll do it better."

Within five hours of Bezos's request for ideas on Twitter, there were more than thirty-six hundred replies, including suggestions that he support affordable housing, veterans' organizations, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender causes. Larry Brilliant, who previously ran Google.org and is now acting chair of the Skoll Global Threats Fund, said that crowdsourcing philanthropic ideas had had mixed results, in large part due to the challenge of identifying those that have promise. "The denominator of ideas you will get in, the vast majority of ideas which are not good, not viable," said Brilliant, "will flood this process."

Nick Wingfield. "Jeff Bezos Wants Ideas for Philanthropy, So He Asked Twitter." New York Times 06/15/2017. Robert Frank. "At Last, Jeff Bezos Offers a Hint of His Philanthropic Plans." New York Times 06/15/2017.