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Jeff Bezos is drawing from an older tradition of charity. He’s not the only donor heading in that direction.
On June 16, in a move that shook the grocery industry, Amazon agreed to purchase Whole Foods for $13.7 billion. Yet just a day before, Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder (and the owner of The Washington Post), made an announcement that could prove an even greater disruption to a different sector: philanthropy. Bezos’s philanthropic activity has been surprisingly modest, at least relative to his vast wealth; the Whole Foods revelation boosted his net worth and vaulted him into second place in Forbes’s rankings of the world’s billionaires.
But in a tweet, Bezos hinted that he was reassessing his “philanthropy strategy” and asked his more than 222,000 followers for advice on how to implement it. His goal was particularly striking, different from the long-term investments — in The Post and in Amazon, for instance — that had occupied much of his time. For his giving, he sought a “short term” focus. “I want much of my philanthropic activity to be helping people in the here and now . . . at the intersection of urgent need and lasting impact,” he declared. Bezos cited a homeless shelter in Seattle, Mary’s Place, to which Amazon recently granted rent-free space in one of its headquarters buildings, as an example.
For many within the philanthropic sector, which I study, this was crazy talk. Philanthropists are supposed to pursue “systems change,” long-term impact and the extirpation of root causes. Think, for instance, of Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s $3 billion effort to cure “all disease in our children’s lifetime.” As one philanthropic consultant insisted in an online column in Forbes, short-term giving has never led to lasting social change, and Bezos’s flawed strategy is based on a “longing for instant personal gratification that clouds judgment.” Or as another Forbes writer argued,
The problem with the short-term perspective is that it positions philanthropy as charity rather than a mechanism for shaping a more just, equitable world.”