Jeff Bezos’ $100 million award to Dolly Parton is something of a puzzle to Phil Buchanan, president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy.
The singer’s donations funding COVID-19 vaccine development and other causes, has been “really, really admirable,” said Buchanan, author of the book “Giving Done Right.” But Amazon’s billionaire founder could have directly donated to the organizations Parton supports.
“Perhaps the calculus is about effectiveness and impact,” Buchanan said. “Perhaps the calculus is about publicity … You just have to wonder.”
A lot of wondering is indeed going on in the aftermath of the award, announced by Bezos last weekend in a tweet with a video of him and partner Lauren Sanchez giving the award to a jubilant Parton.
That was quickly followed by a Monday CNN interview in which Bezos said he plans to give away most of his astounding fortune — amounting to $124 billion, according to Bloomberg — during his lifetime.
As the philanthropic world chewed on that, along came another Monday announcement, by Bezos’ ex-wife MacKenzie Scott, that she had given nearly $2 billion to 343 organizations over the last seven months, contributing to her total giving of nearly $15 billion. No video. No ceremony.
Scott wrote about her latest massive donations on the website Medium in three paragraphs — not including a poem that speaks to the power of shutting up and letting those who have been harmed speak for themselves.
Scott’s announcement invited a comparison with Bezos that already seemed obvious to many.
“Clearly, they’re taking very different approaches,” said Gabrielle Fitzgerald, founder and CEO of Panorama Global, a Seattle nonprofit that supports philanthropists and entrepreneurs promoting social change. “He has tended toward higher-profile, flashy contributions,” whereas Scott has taken a quiet approach and given to a broad array of organizations, some not well known.
Scott has also become well known for giving money with no strings attached, eschewing stringent conditions often attached to donations and letting organizations decide for themselves how best to use the money. In that respect, Bezos’ latest giving is similar, said Benjamin Soskis, a senior research associate with the Washington D.C.-based Urban Institute.
The Seattle area offers an exceptional cluster of case studies into the philanthropy of extraordinarily wealthy people. The tech world created fortunes not only for Bezos and Scott but also Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, his ex-wife Melinda French Gates, and former Microsoft executives Steve Ballmer and Jeff Raikes, to name just a few.
Bezos now joins Gates, French Gates and others in pledging to give away much of their fortunes during their lifetimes. That’s been an increasing trend over the past decade, Soskis said.
Many of these donors, like Bezos, have also become active participants in the donations they make, as opposed to solely leaving such decisions to foundation staff. So more and more, Soskis said, philanthropy “reflects the proclivities, the preferences of a handful of very, very wealthy people.”
Bezos had previously been criticized for not joining the “Giving Pledge,” started by Gates, French Gates and billionaire Warren Buffett, whereby society’s wealthiest people promise to give away most of their money while they’re living or in their wills. Scott has signed the pledge.
Critics have also seen Bezos as not particularly generous, given his vast wealth.
In the CNN interview, Bezos said it’s a challenge to figure out how to give away his fortune. “It’s not easy. It’s really hard,” he said. “And there are a bunch of ways that I think you could do ineffective things too. So we’re building the capacity to be able to give away this money.”
He said he gave Parton the Bezos Award for Courage and Civility because she’s a unifier during divisive times.
Sitting next to him during the interview, Sanchez added, “When you think of Dolly, look, everyone smiles.”
Last year, Bezos gave the same $100 million award to two others: acclaimed chef José Andrés, founder of a nonprofit that provides food after disasters, and Van Jones, a CNN commentator and activist. Bezos announced the awards last year after traveling to space on a rocket launched by his company Blue Origin.
Bezos’ philanthropic approach has been “very much focused on his brand, his identity,” said Soskis of the Urban Institute.
The Amazon billionaire also founded the Bezos Earth Fund in 2020, saying it would distribute $10 billion in a decade.
Denis Hayes, CEO of the Seattle-based Bullitt Foundation, devoted to environmental causes, said he’s been impressed by the top-notch team the Earth Fund has put together, including president and CEO Andrew Steer, who previously head the World Resources Institute and worked as a World Bank envoy for climate change.
Hayes said the Earth Fund’s 10-year time frame is important because it recognizes the urgency of the climate crisis.
“In making that commitment, [Bezos] immediately became one of the largest climate philanthropists on the planet,” added Gregg Small, executive director of Climate Solutions, a Seattle-based nonprofit.
So far, many of the Earth Fund’s grants have gone to large national and international organizations, like the Nature Conservancy, Small noted.
“Those organizations are doing great work,” he said, and can make a global impact. At the same time, he said, he would love to see the fund donate to organizations working at a state and local level.
That’s where a lot of environmental action is happening, he said. Washington, for instance, has made investments in clean energy and is expected to pass a bill requiring clean-fuel vehicles by 2035.
Bezos has made local investments in other areas. With Scott, he started the Day One Fund, giving money to organizations working to reduce poverty and homelessness. Among its grants was $5 million to Mary’s Place, which runs a group of shelters for homeless families. Amazon has also contributed heavily to Mary’s Place, including by building a shelter in one of the company’s South Lake Union buildings.
While Bezos has yet to reveal his next philanthropic steps, Fitzgerald, of Panorama, said one thing is clear: If he’s going to give away all his billions while alive, “he’s really going to have to pick up the pace of giving.”
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Ballmer Group and Microsoft Philanthropies, as well as Jeff and Tricia Raikes, are contributing funders to Seattle Times journalism initiatives.