Bezos pledges $2 billion to help homeless families and launch a network of preschools
Jeff Bezos, the world's richest man, on Thursday announced he was starting up philanthropic organizations focused on providing help to homeless families and preschools for low-income communities, a later start on charitable giving than many of his fellow billionaires.
Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, said he would begin with an initial commitment of $2 billion to create what he called the Day One Fund. It was the result, he said in a statement, of a months-long campaign to solicit philanthropic ideas from the public.
"We know for a fact that if a kid falls behind it's really, really hard to catch up," Bezos said Thursday evening at an event hosted by the Economic Club of Washington. "If you can give somebody a leg up when they're 2, 3 or 4 years old, by the time they get to kindergarten of first grade, they're much less likely to fall behind. You're really improving their odds."
"If our own great grandchildren don't have lives better than ours, something has gone very wrong," Bezos said in a tweet on Thursday. "Where's the good in the world, and how can we spread it? Where are the opportunities to make things better? These are exciting questions."
The announcement comes a few weeks after the first major political contribution from Bezos and his wife, MacKenzie, - a $10 million gift to a super PAC focused on electing veterans to public office. In January, he said he would donate $33 million to a scholarship fund for young "dreamers," immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
"As an individual commitment, $2 billion is pretty high but it's not in the league of a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation," which last year had a $50.7 billion endowment, said Kyle Caldwell, executive director of the Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. "But this is part of a wave we're seeing within Silicon Valley, where a number of successful entrepreneurs are looking at philanthropy to have a greater impact."
Bezos, whose net worth is estimated at about $164 billion, has been criticized for not doing more to support charities, the way other billionaires have, such as Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Mark Zuckerberg. And Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has held Bezos up as an example of a leader of a company that does not pay its workers enough.
"Thousands of Amazon workers have to rely on food stamps, Medicaid and public housing to survive," Sanders tweeted earlier this month. "That is what a rigged economy looks like."
On Twitter Thursday, Bezos said he would create a "Families Fund" that would "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."
A separate "Academies Fund" would open and operate "a network of high-quality, full-scholarship, Montessori-inspired preschools in underserved communities," he wrote.
Bezos' announcement comes on the heels of a number of high-profile philanthropic efforts by the country's tech billionaires. In 2010, Buffett and Gates created the Giving Pledge, which calls on billionaires to pledge the majority of their wealth to charity. Nearly 200 people from 22 countries have signed on, including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Tesla's Elon Musk, Carl Icahn, T. Boone Pickens and Ted Turner. (Noticeably absent from the list: Bezos, whose fortune has already increased by more than $60 billion in the last year, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.)
Zuckerberg, who founded Facebook a decade after Bezos created Amazon, said three years ago that he and his wife, Priscilla Chan, would eventually give away 99 percent of their Facebook shares -- worth $45 billion at the time -- to efforts including eliminating "all disease in our children's lifetime."
Charitable giving has become particularly important, experts say, amid rising income inequality in the United States.
"We live in an age in which the winners have done incredibly well and perhaps the majority of working Americans haven't," said Anand Giridharadas, author of "Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World." "So when someone like Jeff Bezos admirably steps into the area of giving, it's helpful but we also have systematic problems in wages and labor, healthcare and education, that need to be addressed at the root."
Last year, Bezos took to Twitter to request ideas for how he use his vast fortune for good. He wrote that he wanted to help "people in the here and now - short term - at the intersection of urgent need and lasting impact."
In coming to his decision on what areas to pursue, he said on Twitter Thursday that he wanted to continue finding ways to improve society from one generation to the next. "Where's the good in the world, and how can we spread it?" he wrote. "Where are the opportunities to make things better? These are exciting questions."
He cited his work at his space company, Blue Origin, and his investment, estimated now at $1 billion a year, "in the future of our planet and civilization through the development of foundational space infrastructure." He said he was supporting "American democracy through stewardship of the Washington Post" and pointed to the contributions he has given to cancer research, marriage equality and college scholarships for immigrant students.
At the Economic Club discussion Thursday night, in response to a question from moderator David Rubenstein about President Trump's critical statements about The Post, Bezos said public officials shouldn't lash out at the news media.
"If you're the president of the United States, you don't take that job thinking you're not going to be scrutinized," Bezos said, adding that he'd had "a couple of conversations" with Donald Trump, though he declined to elaborate. "You're going to get scrutinized, and it's healthy. What the president should say is, 'This is right, this is good. I'm glad I'm being scrutinized.' That would be so secure and confident. But it's really dangerous to demonize the media. It's dangerous to call the media low-lifes. It's dangerous to say they're the enemy of the people."
Discussing the preschools he would be funding, Bezos said he would focus on children the way Amazon does its customers.
"The customer is going to be the child," Bezos said. "The secret sauce of Amazon -- the number one thing that has made us successful has by far is obsessive, compulsive focus on the customer. We're going to be obsessively, compulsively focused on the child. We're going to be scientific when we can be, and we're going to use heart and intuition when we have to."
Philanthropy experts called Bezos' approach direct and pragmatic, but said its success would depend largely on how the money was allocated and how willing the billionaire was to make changes along the way.
"There's been a movement away from band-aid solutions," said Ray Madoff, director of the Boston College Law School Forum on Philanthropy and the Public Good. "Bezos' response reflects the reality that people feel, which is that there are a lot of real problems not being addressed."
Avo Makdessian, a vice president at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, a non-profit that manages donations for philanthropists including many tech billionaires, said he hoped Bezos' pledge would help inspire other wealthy Americans -- as well as the government -- to take similar action.
"We're hoping that local, state and federal governments see this as a call to invest more in preschool and childcare," he said. "Frankly, philanthropy can't fund all of society's challenges."
This article was written by Christian Davenport and Abha Bhattarai, reporters for The Washington Post.