Bezos Targets $2 Billion Toward Homeless, Education

More than a year after he first solicited suggestions via Twitter about a philanthropy strategy, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos announced a commitment of $2 billion that would fund nonprofits that help the homeless and also create new nonprofit preschools in low-income communities.

In the days since Thursday’s announcement, there are still some unanswered questions about how exactly the Bezos Day One Fund will operate, whether as a foundation, donor-advised fund (DAF), nonprofit, or an Limited Liability Corporation (LLC) like the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), announced in 2015 by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan.

“I talk often about the importance of maintaining a Day 1 mentality. It’s always Day 1, and I work hard to apply that mindset to everything I do. It was a Day 1 outlook that made me reach out to ask for suggestions on approaches to philanthropy last year,” Bezos said in his announcement.

The Day 1 Families Fund will issue annual leadership awards to organizations and civic groups doing work to provide shelter and hunger support to address immediate needs of young families. The Day 1 Academies Fund will launch and operate a network of high-quality, full-scholarship, Montessori-inspired preschools in underserved communities.

“We will build an organization to directly operate these preschools. I’m excited about that because it will give us the opportunity to learn, invent, and improve. We’ll use the same set of principles that have driven Amazon. Most important among those will be genuine, intense customer obsession. The child will be the customer. ‘Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.’ And lighting that fire early is a giant leg up for any child,” Bezos said.

Rob Reich, faculty co-director of the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, described the announcement as leaving “many open questions.” In a series of Tweets, he said: “Very little information available to begin to assess his plans. Hopefully much more info to come soon. Let the scrutiny begin. We can save the gratitude for later.”

What form Bezos’ philanthropy takes is an interesting question but what might be the more important lesson from what he announced is that he’s doing what he said would do a year ago, according to Leslie Lenkowsky, senior counselor to the dean of the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University. “It’s quite different from what Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg or other people of that wealth are doing,” he said. “Rather than focusing on ambitious, long-term systemic goals, he’s doing what he said he would, aid people in the here and now,” Lenkowsky said.

While $2 billion is not much compared to his net worth of $150 billion or more, Bezos “is just beginning what could be a long philanthropy career,” Lenkowsky said. “It’s better to start with things that are manageable.”

In Bezos’ philanthropy, Lenkowsky is reminded of Julius Rosenwald, the marketing guru behind Sears, Roebuck & Co., arguably the Amazon of its day. Rosenwald’s donations helped to build schools for African-American children in the South but he was criticized for not trying to support legal efforts to equalize education. “The interesting thing about Bezos, he’s not trying to affect laws and policies” about preschool education but build them.

Amazon has come under criticism for its business practices and wages in recent years. Philanthropy as a route to stem criticism is as old as philanthropy itself, dating to the time of the Rockefellers and Carnegies, who built their fortunes on oil and railroads. When Bill Gates really began pumping mBezos oney into his foundation, Lenkowsky said, it was amidst an anti-trust investigation of Microsoft. One of Zuckerberg’s first mega-gifts was a $100 million donation to the Newark, N.J., public schools ahead of the release of “The Social Network,” a mainstream film that chronicled the early days of Facebook’s founding during Zuckerberg’s time at Harvard. “These things happen,” Lenkowsky said. “It depends on your point of view, of course, but it goes all the way back in U.S. history.”

It’s not the first foray into philanthropy for Bezos but it is his biggest. In January, Bezos and his wife announced a $33-million contribution to TheDream.US, the largest gift in the organization’s history, which will provide financial aid for 1,000 undocumented immigrant high school graduates with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status. That gift also had its origins in the original Tweet seeking ideas about philanthropy strategy.

The Bezos family also made a $35-million gift to the Seattle-based Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in March 2017, the largest in its history, to attract research talent to lead projects at the core of its new strategic plan.

A new Amazon building being constructed in downtown Seattle will eventually house a new 200-bed shelter for the Mary’s Place, a local homeless shelter.