Amazon’s Bezos Announces His Entry into Mega-Philanthropy

On the 13th of September 2018 Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, took to Twitter to launch his first major philanthropic efforts with his wife McKenzie. Through their Bezos Day One Foundation, the Bezoses have pledged $2 billion (£1.5 billion) to tackle homelessness and improve education. Prior to the announcement of the Day 1 Fund, Bezos’ largest charitable contribution was a $33 million (£25.4 million) gift toward scholarships for ‘Dreamers’ (individuals afforded temporary protection under the Delayed Action for Childhood Arrivals programme) in early 2018.

However, with Bezos’ net worth now at an estimated $164 billion (£126.2 billion), making him the wealthiest person in history according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, the donation has fallen short of the expectations of many observers. Meanwhile, Amazon remains under close scrutiny for the alleged mistreatment of members of its warehouse staff and for its efforts to secure tax breaks in Seattle, the site of its headquarters, and in the search for a second North American headquarters. In his Twitter announcement, Bezos asked: ‘Where’s the good in the world, and how can we spread it?’ But, with this approach, Bezos may be failing to recognise the ways in which Amazon continues to contribute to the harms his new plans seek to address.

Bezos’ Day 1 Families Fund will support existing non-profit groups that provide services for homeless families, while the Day 1 Academies Fund will establish its own non-profit Tier 1 pre-schools to serve low-income communities. The announcement was hotly anticipated – Bezos issued a call for philanthropic ideas in the summer of 2017 and received over 47,000 responses, with homelessness and education emerging as common priorities. However, the announcement of plans to tackle homelessness comes after Amazon threatened to freeze hiring in the Seattle area earlier this year if the Seattle City Council progressed with plans to raise taxes on major employers like Amazon. The proposed tax was intended to generate $50 million (£38.5 million) towards tackling homelessness and building affordable housing in the Seattle community.

Anand Giridharadas, author of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, argues that Bezos’ approach ignores the root causes of many of America’s social ills today – namely the imbalance of power and wealth, and the exploitation of workers by their employers. Amazon has been widely accused of putting efficiency and productivity over the wellbeing of its warehouse staff. US Amazon warehouses featured on the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health’s list of most dangerous workplaces in April 2018 and the company has been known to shift the burden of responsibility for workplace injuries onto the third-party companies that hire its temporary workers.

Giridharadas asks whether billionaires should seek to change the world, or simply start by changing their own business practices. Amazon’s lobby against tax hikes and its maltreatment of staff may help to drive profit, but the human cost is considerable. He suggests that if Bezos and Amazon dutifully paid taxes and afforded employees better treatment and better pay, the company would have less to give away overall, but would contribute less to income disparity and worker exploitation and the social harms that accompany these inequalities.

Others disagree with Giridharadas. While far from promoting the abuse of workers or the avoidance of taxes, Scottish ethicist William McAskill, one of the founders of the effective altruism movement, does promote an ‘earn to give’ approach based on maximising wealth to maximise one’s capacity to give. He promotes careers in the tech industry over professions typically perceived as the most socially impactful, such as teaching or medicine, due to the potential for higher income. The three largest charitable donations in the US in 2017 came from the tech sector: Bill and Melinda Gates gave $4.6 billion (£3.5 billion) to their foundation; Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan pledged $1.9 billion (£1.5 billion) to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative; and Michael and Susan Dell (of Dell Technologies) gave $1 billion (£0.77 billion) to their Foundation.

Bill and Melinda Gates made the largest charitable donation in the US in 2017, at $4.6 million, and their foundation has saved an estimated 6 million lives. Image by Kjetil Ree.

Bezos will have to increase his commitment considerably if he should aim to match the charitable investment of some of his tech peers. Zuckerberg and Chan announced in 2015 that they would donate 99% of their Facebook shares (then valued at $45 billion) through their Chan Zuckerberg Initiative over the course of their lifetime. Meanwhile, the work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which contributes to the most cost-effective charities and interventions for those living on under $2 a day, had donated an estimated $30 billion (£23 billion) by 2015 and saved around six million lives – more than the entire population of Scotland.

While Bezos’ charitable plans amount to only 1.2% of his total wealth, he has hinted at plans to grow his contributions over time. However, for Bezos to earn some legitimacy in the world of mega-philanthropy, he will first have to deal with Amazon’s decidedly uncharitable behaviour, towards its workers and the cities it inhabits.

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