In an unexpected move, Jeff Bezos took to Instagram on Monday to announce that he is pledging $10 billion to fight climate change with his new Bezos Earth Fund. Here's his announcement:
So far as I can tell, that Instagram post is the only information that's publicly available about the new fund or Bezos's planned climate change philanthropy. The Bezos Earth Fund apparently has no website yet, or publicly acknowledged staff. It hasn't said whether it plans to focus on any particular areas of climate change, or how decisions about where to donate would be made. (I've reached out to Amazon for more information and if I get any, I will update this post.)
There are a few lessons we can all learn from Bezos's announcement and the reaction to it so far.
1. Big numbers grab big headlines.
There are any number of headlines out there right now that combine the words "Jeff Bezos" "$10 billion" and "climate change." No one seems all that concerned about the lack of detail, even though the lack of detail is striking. Compare it, for instance, with Bezos's 2018 announcement of the Day One Fund which explained in detail exactly what the fund would do. And the Day One fund started with a pledge of $2 billion, one-fifth the funding of the Bezos Earth Fund.
2. Once you've alienated employees, it's tough to undo.
Alienated Amazon employees appear to have set the whole thing in motion. It began almost a year ago, when a group called Amazon Employees for Climate Justice sent an open letter to Jeff Bezos and the Amazon board asking the company to make some climate-related changes to its policies, especially in light of the company's AWS for Oil & Gas Services initiative and the fact that Amazon had just ordered 20,000 diesel vans. More than 8,700 Amazon employees have signed that letter. Then in September, 1,700 Amazon employees joined the climate walkouts, even though on the previous day, Amazon announced its Climate Pledge, promising to meet the goals laid out in the Paris Agreement on Climate Change ten years early.
Some of the walkout's organizers were later given warnings that they had violated the company's policy against making public statements about Amazon without prior permission and were in danger of being fired. They responded by organizing a group of 350 Amazon employees to deliberately violate the policy by publishing statements on Medium.
Once you've threatened to fire employees, it's tough to get them on your side, and Amazon Employees for Climate Justice did not respond to the current announcement as positively as Bezos might have hoped. Instead, they publicly questioned him about AWS for Oil & Gas Services, and about the company's past donations to both organizations and individual politicians who oppose legislation and initiatives to fight climate change.
3. Smart leaders think long-term.
Bezos has consistently managed for the long term in his stewardship of Amazon, for example, by keeping the company unprofitable for years while he poured all the revenues he could back into making improvements. My guess is that long-term thinking is behind the new Bezos Earth Fund as well.
Bezos knows that being perceived as on the wrong side of climate change controversy can hurt Amazon's reputation for a long time to come, especially since the effects of climate change will get harder to ignore. My guess is that he's betting Amazon Employees for Climate Justice will fade out as its leaders move on to other companies, or as an uptick in unemployment makes those employees a bit more afraid of losing their jobs than they are today. Whereas, creating a highly visible and huge fund to help climate change will bolster Amazon's reputation in this area for decades, even if AWS does keep on serving the fossil fuel industry.
It's a very smart thing to do. But considering how much of a difference $10 billion can make, it's also a very good thing to do.