In a high-profile tweet, Jeff Bezos asked the world today for advice on how he should spend his charity dollars. "I'm thinking about a philanthropy strategy that is the opposite of how I mostly spend my time--working on the long term. For philanthropy, I find I'm drawn to the other end of the spectrum: the right now."
He goes on to praise the work of Seattle homeless shelter Mary's Place, and further claims that the companies he started or owns (Amazon, Blue Origin, Washington Post) are all "contributing to society and civilization in their own ways." Some of those "contributions" include destroying the bookstore industry, hobbling libraries with overly high e-book prices, and forcing publishers and authors to accept vastly reduced payments for their work.
But never mind. Now, he says, he wants his charitable efforts to help people in the here and now, "at the intersection of urgent need and lasting impact." And he asks the Twitterverse for both suggestions and comments on this approach.
Well, Jeff, you asked. Here are some suggestions for you (including a few that all of us could follow, and probably should).
1. Sign the Giving Pledge.
At the start of 2017, the three wealthiest people in the world were Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Jeff Bezos, in that order. But soon, depending on the changing price of Amazon shares, Bezos may be at the top of that list. The other two wealthiest guys on the planet have cooked up a scheme to get all the world's billionaires to sign the Giving Pledge--a public commitment to give away the majority of their wealth. The pledge is considered a moral obligation--there's no timeline or enforcement. Many or maybe most of the world's high-profile billionaires are already on board, and Bezos is conspicuous by his absence. By signing the pledge, he could signal that he's serious about philanthropy. That would be a change to his public image--in the past he's been known for how little he gives relative to his vast wealth.
He seems to be concerned with changing that public image, which I suspect is the true purpose of his tweet. Signing the pledge would also have that effect, but would come with some peer pressure to actually do significant giving for a multibillionaire. And because signatories meet to exchange ideas, it would help him find some worthy charities as well. If he's serious about this, he should consider it. Those of us who aren't billionaires can still make a commitment to significant giving at any income level, for instance by taking the Giving What We Can Pledge.
2. Create affordable housing in Seattle.
If Bezos wants to effect change right where he is and where he himself can see it, he could start by addressing Seattle's housing crisis. The city has seen the greatest influx of new residents since the Gold Rush, and Amazon is largely the cause. Kudos to Bezos for creating so many local jobs, and for not going the Google and Apple route of creating a giant, self-contained campus out in the suburbs where employees interact only with one another and are pretty much stuck using only services the company itself provides.
But there's no question Amazon's rapid expansion in Seattle is the biggest cause of a dramatic shortage of affordable housing. Seattle is in a one-time transition from a secondary city whose economy was driven by airplane manufacture, fishing, and shipping to a first-rank tech industry center. Average rents are still dramatically lower than in New York City or San Francisco, but they're catching up fast. That transition has a lot of people struggling to find homes they can afford to live in.
RVs full of people with no other place to live and sprouting tent cities are creating havoc throughout the region. In response, Amazon is devoting some of its new office complex to a homeless shelter, and that's a great start. But that's firmly in the urgent need category, since homeless shelters are a short-term solution and people are only allowed to stay for a limited time. To have lasting impact, Bezos should fund or create affordable housing in and near Seattle, and perhaps assist in improving the public transportation system to make it more feasible to work in town but live elsewhere. Right now, most commuters are stuck driving in a highway system unfit to handle the overload, making Seattle one of the top 10 cities in the nation for awful commutes.
3. Look beyond enlightened self-interest.
A lot of charitable giving is driven by enlightened self-interest in which your philanthropy makes the world a better place for you as well as the recipients of your donation. One obvious example is donating clothes to gain more closet space. But donating to a homeless shelter in Seattle, and thus making it a safer and more pleasant place, obviously works to Bezos's advantage in several ways. If you look at Bezos Family Foundation giving thus far, it's highly focused on cancer research and education. Cancer is a big concern for all of us, and most of us have lost friends and family members to cancer. On top of that, one's chances of contracting cancer increase with age, and Bezos is 53.
As for education, Amazon, like all high-tech companies, is facing a severe shortage of skilled employees, especially those with tech skills. So Bezos Family efforts to help educate young people, especially in STEM subjects, is smart long-term thinking: Amazon may be able to hire those people someday. (To make sure, Amazon just announced a program this summer in which 9- to 14-year-olds will tour the Amazon headquarters and a shipping center, get the employee orientation, and learn how to properly pack an order for shipping.)
All this stuff is very useful, and I would never knock enlightened self-interest, which has inspired a lot of great philanthropy throughout history. But STEM education is not where the need is most urgent. Neither is the Museum of History & Industry, another big recipient of Bezos Family funds. When you're among the three richest people on the planet, you should take a broader and less self-centered view and also fund efforts that help people in desperate need without necessarily benefiting you or your shareholders.
4. Look beyond your own backyard.
If you want to address urgent need, start by asking where the need is most urgent. It turns out that's a question with a very straightforward answer. Traditionally, Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Southeast Asia have hosted the world's worst poverty, but most of these regions have seen remarkable improvement over the past few years. The exception is Sub-Saharan Africa, the only region where poverty is increasing instead of lessening. The region has the dubious distinction of having the world's 10 poorest nations. It's the obvious place to start if you're looking for urgent need.
5. Read the tweets.
Bezos asked for suggestions, which implies that he or someone on his staff will actually read them. I hope so, because there are a lot of smart responses, although nearly all of them are U.S.- or Seattle-based. One response, by Wired writer Emily Dreyfuss, links to a fascinating article in The Atlantic, describing data that shows--contrary to what most people believe--that when you give poor people cash grants with no strings attached, they use it to improve their lives and their communities more effectively than supposedly more responsible programs that create jobs or distribute food.
Bezos has claimed that figuring out how to give money away well amounts to a full-time job. Giving cash grants directly to poor people or supporting charities that do could make that job a lot easier.
6. Just be nicer.
Philanthropy is a great and vitally important way to make the world better. But you should also look at how your behavior in your daily life, and the business decisions you make, affect those around you, your community, and the rest of the planet. Large or small, every action has a good or bad effect.
This is especially true when you're the head of a huge and powerful corporation. Amazon has great customer service, but the company can be kind of hard-nosed with its employees and business partners. A packing facility with no air-conditioning where employees collapsed from the heat so often that an ambulance parked outside, a dictate to fire bottom performers that led to cutthroat behavior among employees desperate to save themselves, and loss-leader pricing that dragged down the price of e-books and dealt a body blow to the struggling publishing industry are just a few of the not-so-nice things Amazon has done over the years.
Travis Kalanick apparently drew inspiration for Uber's infamous 14 values from Amazon's Leadership Principles. Amazon's principles not as aggressive as Uber's values (which include "Toe-Stepping"). Still, they mention nothing about ethics, fairness, concern for the planet, or human welfare of any kind.
Bezos absolutely should, and apparently will, up his philanthropy game in the coming months and years. But he can also make the world a better place by changing how he runs Amazon.
Here's Bezos's tweet, in case you want to respond with your own giving ideas. You never know.