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I love the formula which Jeff Bezos uses to define where he’d like to focus his philanthropic efforts: “at the intersection of urgent need and lasting impact”. His note arrives as Robert Frank, in the NYT, asks some pointed questions about Bezos’s philanthropy, and the fact that Bezos is by far the richest American not to sign the Giving Pledge.
Bezos says that he wants to be “helping people in the here and now,” which is a surprisingly rare focus for mega-scale philanthropy. Most billionaires tend to the opposite end of the charity-philanthropy spectrum, embracing ultra-long time horizons with an aim of having impact for many centuries to come. Philanthropically-funded scientific research, for instance, gave us both Norman Borlaug’s green revolution and the Pill, with almost unquantifiably enormous positive consequences in both cases.
Similarly, a lot of billionaires have a tendency to fund foundations, hospitals, universities, libraries, and other quasi-permanent institutions; again, the idea is that the gift will keep on giving for decades or even centuries to come.
I’m not a huge fan of this kind of thinking. I believe that philanthropy should be front-loaded, since the clear secular trend in philanthropy is that more and more rich people are giving more and more money every year. The future is going to enjoy a massive quantity of philanthropic resources, even if we’ve already spent down all the gifts currently in existence. And on top of that, the world in general is becoming richer and healthier, which means that today’s neediest are, to a first approximation, the neediest that the world will ever see. Let’s focus on them.