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Jeff Bezos is now the world's richest person -- and he could redefine philanthropy

Jeff bezosDavid Ryder/Getty ImagesAs the world’s richest person, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos could transform how philanthropy works.

A surge in Amazon stock on the morning of July 27 has increased CEO Jeff Bezos’ net worth by $US1.1 billion, officially making him the world’s richest person.

Aside from displacing Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates in the top spot, the new distinction could fuel Bezos’ interest in furthering human progress through for-profit companies. And those efforts could produce big shifts in 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.

When Amazon bought Whole Foods on June 18, the move sent the online retailer’s stock skyrocketing. It also increased Bezos’ net worth by $US1.8 billion, to $US84.6 billion. At the time that was $US5 billion behind Gates. But now Bezos’ total net worth of $US90.9 has eclipsed that of his fellow Seattleite.

Bezos’ plan to make business investments double as forms of social change was evident in his decision to buy The Washington Post in 2013. He quickly turned it into a lean, digital journalism powerhouse — something other large news organisations have struggled to do. Similarly, Amazon’s recent purchase of Whole Foods may hint at Bezos’ desire to reinvent the food industry’s supply chain. (At the very least, he has the opportunity to do so.)

Wales says Bezos’ business plays offer a window into how he could cement his status as one of the most influential players in the philanthropy world, independent of the Bezos Family Foundation that’s run by his parents. 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.”

That approach could encourage more short-term solutions to problems typically thought of as systemic, Wales said, and that could be a good thing. 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.”

Other billionaires, on the other hand, are sticking to big-picture work. Bill and Melinda Gates are trying to end polio once and for all, and Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan are trying to eradicate disease and improve education.

But Bezos is a newbie to the philanthropy world (he isn’t involved with his parents’ foundation), and people just starting out in the field often take a year or two to get a lay of the land and form a strategy. Judging by his past business moves, Bezos-style philanthropy might involve private investments in startups looking to do social good or acquisitions of other companies.

Not everyone in the philanthropy community is optimistic about Bezos’ influence, however.

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.

And in a recent open letter to Bezos in Forbes, philanthropy adviser Jake Hayman took issue with the notion that focusing on short-term goals can yield lasting impact.

“It’s the business equivalent of looking for ‘safe, proven investments’ with imminent 10-fold returns,” Hayman wrote. “It doesn’t happen.”

Bezos is not participating in The Giving Pledge, a pact among 16 billionaires (including Warren Buffett and Mark Zuckerberg) to give away at least half of their fortunes before they die. But Wales contends that Bezos still has the potential to 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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