Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man and one frequently tagged a cheapskate when it comes to giving away money, has emerged as a leading philanthropist.
According to the latest Philanthropy 50 list, a ranking of America’s top 50 donors compiled by the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Bezos actually made more charitable donations than anyone else in the US last year, including philanthropists with comparable fortunes such as former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and Microsoft’s Bill Gates.
Bezos, who holds Amazon stock valued at about $137bn, contributed a total of $2bn to good causes in 2018 through his Bezos Day One Fund, a philanthropic vehicle founded by his soon-to-be ex-wife MacKenzie Bezos.
According to the foundation’s website, the Bezos fund was established to support existing not-for-profits addressing homelessness and poverty, in addition to funding preschool education in low-income communities.
While the Bezos gifts may still be far behind Gates’ lifetime donations of about $45bn to global poverty alleviation and education, or Bloomberg’s current $6bn in gifts, his surprise entry into the top 50 comes as overall giving among the group declined by half last year compared to 2017.
According to the Chronicle’s annual list the people who gave the most to charity contributed a total of more than $7.8bn last year, a steep drop from the $14.7bn a year earlier.
In order of magnitude, the Bezos’s $2bn came in easily ahead of Bloomberg, who gave $767m to the arts, education, the environment, health and other causes; and at No 3, Pierre and Pam Omidyar, whose fortune derives from eBay, who contributed $392m to not-for-profits that seek to promote democracy, citizen activism and other causes.
The Omidyars handily beat out Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, who came in at No 7 with gifts totaling $213m to various causes.
Other newcomers to the list include Craigslist founder Craig Newmark at No 11, who donated $144m, largely to not-for-profits that produce news and journalism.
According to the publication, the 2018 list is notable for donations directed toward artificial intelligence or other tech advances. One of the principal donors to that field is Wall Street fund manager Stephen Schwarzman, who at No 4 gave $350m to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for artificial intelligence studies.
Still the focus of the latest list is likely to remain on Bezos, whose entry onto the charts comes after years of making no impression whatsoever.
Bezos has previously said he intends to plough his entire fortune into his Texas-based space operation Blue Origin, explaining: “We have to go to space to save earth, and we kind of have to hurry.”
But with an impending divorce that could siphon off half of his fortune, the scale of that plan could be facing reductions.
Bezos’s $2bn gift may help to quell persistent grumblings about his slow philanthropic uptake. In 2017, Bezos responded and solicited ideas on Twitter for long-term philanthropic causes, receiving over 49,000 comments.
Bezos later said the responses, which trended to affordable housing, environmental protection and workers’ rights, had been “very helpful and have already changed my thinking about how to approach this”.
Bezos’ gift, which amounts to a 2% tax on his fortune, comes as Amazon corporate tax structure comes under increasing scrutiny. The company has been profitable only over the last two years and only - relative to revenue - to a marginal $11 billion last year, yet the company paid $0 in corporate income tax last year, according to an analysis from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.
Yet investors have been willing to pay for Amazon shares at an extreme multiple of earnings in the hope it will someday return higher earnings. That hope, and canny tax structuring, is the basis of Bezos’ richest-man status and in part why his gift-giving – or lack of it – comes under persistent scrutiny.
Bezos’ charitable donation will also refocus attention on his personal tax status.
Last month historian Rutger Bregman made a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos during which he accused wealthy participants at the meeting of avoiding higher taxes. Societies should not rely on the generosity of the rich, Bregman said, adding: “Philanthropy is not a substitute for democracy, or proper taxation, or a good welfare state.”