When Amazon bought Whole Foods on June 18, the move sent the online retailer’s stock skyrocketing. It also increased the net worth of its CEO, Jeff Bezos, by $US1.8 billion.
That put Bezos’ net worth of $US84.6 billion $US5 billion behind — and within striking distance of — Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates, whose net worth of $US89.4 billion currently makes him the world’s richest person.
If that happens, Bezos’ interest in furthering human progress through for-profit companies could shift how the world’s wealthiest think about philanthropy.
“I think his activities to-date suggest he looks at some of his business investments as opportunities to advance social change,” Jane Wales, CEO of the Global Philanthropy
Forum, told Business Insider.
That was the case with The Washington Post, which Bezos bought in 2013 and quickly flipped into a lean, digital journalism powerhouse — something other large news organisations have struggled with doing. And it’s the case with Amazon, whose recent purchase of Whole Foods may hint at Bezos’ desire, or at least opportunity, to reinvent the food industry’s supply chain.
Wales says these business plays offer a window into how Bezos, independent of the Bezos Family Foundation run by his parents, could cement his status as one of the most influential players in the philanthropy world. In fact, Bezos may already be looking to take more projects onto his plate. Recently, he tweeted his 274,000 followers asking for ways to generate lasting impact with quick, decisive action.
“I’m thinking about a philanthropic strategy that is the opposite of how I mostly spend my time — working on the long term,” Bezos wrote. “For philanthropy, I find I’m drawn to the opposite end of the spectrum: the right now.”
Wales said Bezos’ stature could encourage others to find shorter-term solutions to problems typically thought of as systemic. She pointed to the ongoing migrant crisis as one example.
“That requires action now. Governments are overwhelmed, and policy is not solving it,” Wales said. “The Bezos Family Foundation, which is mostly long-term in its thinking, is also giving to the International Rescue Committee, to Save the Children, to CARE — to organisations that address the immediate as well as the long-term.”
Although Bezos’ parents have their own foundation, Bezos isn’t involved with it. He himself is a newbie to the philanthropy world, Wales said, and when people are just starting out they often dip their toes, taking one to two years to get a lay of the land and form a strategy.
Going by his past business moves, Bezos-style philanthropy might involve private investments in startups looking to do social good or acquisitions of other larger companies, like Amazon did with Whole Foods.
This wouldn’t lead other billionaires to do less of their own big-picture work, of course. Bill and Melinda Gates will still try to end polio once and for all, just as Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan will try to eradicate disease and improve education. Wales said Bezos becoming the world’s richest person would also have “no impact” on The Giving Pledge, a pact among billionaires to give away at least half of their fortunes before they die. To date, 16 people have signed. Bezos is not one of them.
Not everyone in the philanthropy community is as optimistic about Bezos’ influence.
“You can add as many times as you like ‘and have lasting impact’ but it’s an impossible oxymoron to focusing short term,” philanthropy adviser Jake Hayman recently wrote for Forbes. “It’s the business equivalent of looking for ‘safe, proven investments’ with imminent 10-fold returns. It doesn’t happen.”
Larry Brilliant, the acting chairman of the Skoll Global Threats Fund, criticised Bezos’ crowdsourcing approach.
“The denominator of ideas you will get in, the vast majority of ideas which are not good, not viable, will flood this process,” Brilliant told the New York Times.
But Wales contends that, like Gates, Bezos will send a strong signal to wealthy Silicon Valley types that philanthropy matters.
“He is young, he is in the midst of his career, and he’s already seen as bold,” she said. “What that tweet says to me is, ‘I do not want to ignore today’s problems.'”
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