In June 2017, Jeff Bezos issued a vague solicitation to his followers on Twitter: “I’m thinking about a philanthropy strategy that is the opposite of how I mostly spend my time — working on the long term,” he wrote. “If you have ideas, just reply to this tweet.”
More than a year went by before Bezos finally revealed his plan for a $2 billion charity fund led by him and his wife, MacKenzie Bezos. Once he did, the Bezos Day One Fund was hounded by critics as a strategic move to distract from a recent string of bad press.
Shortly before the announcement, Business Insider published an article exposing the poor working conditions of the company’s delivery drivers, who recounted a number of alleged abuses, from missing wages and lack of overtime pay to urinating in bottles in order to keep to their delivery schedules.
“Jeff Bezos can tout himself as a great philanthropist, yet it will not absolve him of responsibility if Amazon workers continue to be afraid to take toilet breaks and days off sick because they fear disciplinary action at work,” writer James Bloodworth told the BBC.
This distraction method is part of what Anand Giridharadas, a former consultant turned author, calls the “moral glow” of tech companies. In his recent book, Winners Take All, Giridharadas argues that many wealthy tech firms use philanthropy as a sheen to cover the depth of their influence — or the extent of their abuses.
With his new fund, Bezos has a chance to avoid this trap.
In the wake of the CEO’s announcement, Giridharadas took to Twitter to share his thoughts about the billionaire’s philanthropic endeavor. “Givers often ask what they can do,” Giridharadas said. “But imagine if Jeff Bezos set an example of asking what is rarely asked: What am I already doing? How am I involved in the problems? What could I do to solve them for all?”
It’s a question worth considering as billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg and David Rubenstein garner criticism for setting near-impossible goals for their philanthropies, or hindering government from solving public issues.
For now, Bezos’ two main goals seem innocent of both offenses: He plans to develop a support network for homeless families and establish free preschools in low-income communities.
According to Giridharadas, this gives him a chance to pioneer a new model of philanthropy — one that helps solve the problems he’s been instrumental in creating. That starts not with scaling education programs or homeless initiatives, but with addressing the root of these issues, such as zoning, taxation, or unfair pay practices.
Giridharadas cites the Supreme Court case San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriquez, which allowed Texas schools to be partially funded by property taxes, creating disparities in the quality of public education. By challenging these policies, he said, Bezos could have a meaningful impact on local communities.
That’s a tall order, given the CEO’s history of hoarding his personal fortune. But in an age of increasing skepticism of powerful institutions, Bezos must contend with a new adversary: a growing sense of public scrutiny.
According to Giridharadas, Bezos is the first mega-giver to enter the arena of big philanthropy in the wake of a national backlash against tech companies — one that likely contributed to the rise of populist figures like Donald Trump. As such, Bezos is probably aware of the fact that the eyes of the world are upon him, and citizens are eager to hold him accountable.
“I just hope he would bring to his giving the same daring and irreverence and weirdness that he brought to building Amazon,” said Giridharadas. “What would be disappointing is if his giving was one of conventions and clichés, while his money-making was done with such imagination.”
If Bezos breaks from the standard of corporate philanthropy, he could ignite a paradigm shift in the industry. Giridharadas refers to this new type of billionaire as the “woke giver,” or someone who recognizes their complicity in the world’s problems and makes an effort to right these wrongs, even if it comes at his or her expense.
One prime example is Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation, whom Giridharadas interviewed for Winners Take All. As a black, gay man born into poverty, Walker remains keenly aware of the issues he’s attempting to solve, as well as the the ability of large corporations to exacerbate inequality.
“I think Darren is able to have that double consciousness of being in that [board] room and thinking, ‘This room really could make a difference, and this is the kind of room that throughout history has used the idea of making a difference to screw people,'” Giridharadas said.
While he isn’t certain that Bezos can strike the same balance, Giridharadas is cautiously optimistic. It will boil down to whether Bezos recognizes that there’s more to charity than self-image and improving the bottom line. And it will mean looking inward before looking outward.