“Seattle, you will always have a piece of my heart,” Amazon founder Jeff Bezos wrote in a recent Instagram post announcing his move to Miami.
But what some are hungry for is a slice of his $160 billion fortune, which could have a meaningful impact on the massive challenges of homelessness, drug addiction, income inequality and struggling schools that are eroding communities in the Pacific Northwest.
News of Bezos’ departure has people wondering whether one of the world’s richest people will direct some of his charitable giving to the drizzly Seattle area once he’s ensconced in sunny Miami — and they’re pondering what he owes the region that helped him grow an online bookstore into a tech juggernaut valued at nearly $1.5 trillion.
Bezos, who stepped down as Amazon’s CEO two years ago, is still relatively new to large-scale philanthropy and his charitable track record provides limited clues to his future giving.
For years, critics attacked Bezos and his company for their lack of charitable and civic engagement. Detractors including some of Seattle’s elected officials painted him as a corporate villain and Amazon as a freeloader that didn’t pay its fair share of taxes.
Philanthropy offers Bezos a chance to burnish his legacy — a strategy that has served fellow titans of industry. It worked more than a century ago for Andrew Carnegie, a steel magnate and aggressive union buster, and more recently for Bill Gates, who was the face of Microsoft during a time it was dubbed “the evil empire.”
Carnegie helped found what is now Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, created the U.S. library system and supported world peace. Gates, through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has donated more than $1 billion to the University of Washington and is also backing initiatives in K-12 education, global health and agriculture.
Mega-philanthropists give to place-based causes — including organizations in the area where they grew up, attended university, or made their fortunes — and to initiatives that have a more sweeping geographic reach. Experts in the field and donors themselves don’t agree on whether the focus should be on local or global giving.
“Billionaires like Bezos have a global responsibility with that amount of wealth,” said Michael Greer, president and CEO of the Seattle nonprofit ArtsFund. “I would hope that regardless of where they sleep at night, they’re thinking more large scale about what type of impact they have with their dollars.”
Former Microsoft executive Jon Shirley has a different take.
Shirley and his wife Kim recently bequeathed to the Seattle Art Museum a collection of Alexander Calder’s sculptures worth an estimated $200 million. The artworks went on display this month at the museum, which also received a $10 million endowment from the couple.
“Wherever you are, and you put some roots down, you try and help the community in whatever ways you can,” Shirley said. “So many people in the tech world want to pick some particular cause where they can measure the outcome. It becomes so transactional. In some cases it might be great, in other cases I don’t think it helps at all.”
Paul Allen, the late Microsoft co-founder, echoed Shirley’s sentiments in his 2011 memoir “Idea Man.”
“I find regional and local philanthropy truly gratifying,” Allen wrote, “because you can see how one well-placed grant can make a difference.”
Before his death in 2018, Allen’s locally-focused giving included land conservation in Washington and support for Seattle institutions including the Allen Institute, a research organization; the UW; the Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP); the Cinerama movie theater; and the Living Computers: Museum + Labs; as well as the Flying Heritage & Combat Armor Museum in Everett, Wash., among other nonprofits. Allen also gave to international causes, with a focus on Africa.
In recent years, Bezos has supported Pacific Northwest nonprofits including pandemic-related efforts, preschools serving low-income families, the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) and Mary’s Place, an organization helping women and children experiencing homelessness.
“Jeff and Amazon’s support for Mary’s Place over the years has been transformative,” said Dominique Alex, Mary’s Place interim CEO, by email.
But much of Bezos’ local giving has been modest given his vast wealth.
Under Bezos’ leadership, Amazon became a key benefactor of Mary’s Place, even building shelter space for the nonprofit within its Seattle offices. However, Bezos’ personal giving to the organization totals only $6 million. Fred Hutch Cancer Center has received about $778 million over a decade from “the Bezos family,” the financial source being Jeff Bezos’ parents, Jackie and Miguel Bezos, though Jeff and his siblings have been included in events announcing the news.
Bezos has taken bolder actions in donating to causes with national and international impacts.
In 2018 he launched the Bezos Day One Fund, a $2 billion initiative to open free Montessori schools in Washington and four other states, and to support U.S. groups addressing homelessness. In 2020, he announced the $10 billion, climate-focused Bezos Earth Fund.
Bezos has juggled these philanthropic efforts with his roles at Amazon, which he led for 27 years before shifting to executive chairman in 2021. He’s also the founder of the Kent, Wash.-based space company Blue Origin and owner of The Washington Post.
His home life has been complicated as well. Bezos and ex-wife MacKenzie Scott, with whom he has four children, announced their divorce in 2019 after 25 years of marriage. Bezos recently became engaged to his girlfriend, Lauren Sanchez.
And now the move to Miami, where Bezos said he’ll be able to live near his parents and marks a return to one of the cities of his youth.
“If he’s opening up this new chapter of his life with less focus on Amazon, it may produce more bandwidth for other activities,” said David Callahan, founder of Inside Philanthropy, a clearinghouse on charitable giving.
Those activities could include Blue Origin and The Post, Callahan added, “but philanthropy is often the thing that people turn to next.”
Bezos’ relationship with Sanchez complicates predictions about his future philanthropy. A Vogue profile out Monday made clear the couple’s strong connections to southern stretches of the U.S., including Florida, Texas and southern California, potentially pulling attention and dollars from the Pacific Northwest. Sanchez is vice chair of the Bezos Earth Fund and the Vogue story noted her strong personal interest in philanthropy.
A hopeful note for nonprofits: one year ago Bezos, who turns 60 in January, committed to giving away the majority of his wealth in his lifetime. His ex-wife, who has made the same commitment, is moving much more quickly toward that goal. Since 2020, Scott has donated more than $14.1 billion to at least 1,621 charities.
“The hard part is figuring out how to do it in a levered way. It’s not easy,” Bezos said in a CNN interview including Sanchez in November 2022.
“Building Amazon was not easy. It took a lot of hard work, a bunch of very smart teammates. And I’m finding — I think Lauren is finding the same thing — that philanthropy is very similar,” he told CNN. “It’s not easy. It’s really hard. And there are a bunch of ways that you could do ineffective things, too. So we’re building the capacity to be able to give away this money.”
The unanswered question is whether the community where Bezos built his fortune will reap some of the rewards.
Highlights of Bezos’ giving in the Pacific Northwest
Bezos’ direct giving in Amazon’s home state totals roughly $100 million, though that does not include expenditures for Bezos Academy.
Mary’s Place: Amazon made its first gift to Mary’s Place in 2016, converting a hotel into a homeless shelter on land that was awaiting development. Shortly after, Bezos provided a $1 million matching gift for the nonprofit’s fundraising luncheon. Mary’s Place also received $5 million from the Bezos Day 1 Family Fund.
Additional Washington recipients of Bezos Day 1 Family Fund:
- Building Changes and Africatown International, Seattle, $5 million
- Catholic Charities Eastern Washington, Spokane, $5 million
- Catholic Community Services of Western Washington, Tacoma, $5 million
- Refugee Women’s Alliance, Seattle, $5 million
- Interim Community Development Association, Seattle, $2.5 million
- Mother Nation Honoring the Beauty and Strength of Native Families, Seattle, $600,000
Bezos’ big-ticket philanthropy
Beginning with the launch of his Bezos Day One Fund, the Amazon founder began making bigger donations to nonprofits. Here are some of his largest initiatives.
The fund’s Bezos Academy is creating a network of free, Montessori-based preschools in under-resourced neighborhoods in Florida, Hawaii, Kentucky, Texas and Washington. The program has 12 schools in Washington state open or under development.
The Bezos Day 1 Family Fund is supporting groups aiding families experiencing homelessness and has given out $521.6 million over five years, including charities in Washington.
Bezos Earth Fund: A program announced in February 2020 to spend $10 billion over a decade in support of climate change initiatives. The fund made some notable hires in 2021 and has paid for land conservation and restoration, supported established environmental advocacy groups, and backed climate justice efforts.
Courage and Civility Award: An award providing gifts of $100 million to inspirational leaders who are then able to spend the money on charitable causes. The first two awards went to chef José Andrés and political commentator Van Jones in 2021. Last year’s recipient was music legend Dolly Parton.
Other notable donations:
- $33 million (2018) to TheDream.US, the nation’s largest scholarship program for Dreamers
- undisclosed (2019-’22) to the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation
- $100 million (2020) to Feeding America to support food banks during the COVID 19 pandemic
- $200 million (2021) to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum
- $100 million (2021) to the Barack Obama Foundation for programming that supports emerging leaders
- $100 million (2023) to help Maui recover from devastating wildfires that destroyed Lahaina
Non-Amazon business ventures
Washington Post: Bezos purchased the legendary newspaper for $250 million in 2013. While Bezos wants the Post to make a profit, it has struggled to increase its paid subscribers and reportedly is expected to lose $100 million this year.
Blue Origin: In 2016, Bezos said he’d invested $500 million so far in his space company. The year after, Bezos sold $1 billion worth of Amazon stock to fund the venture and said he’d match that amount for years to come, though it’s unclear if he has.
In 2021, Bezos and three crewmates took a suborbital space trip on a Blue Origin rocket ship, and he announced nearly $100 million in private sales for future trips. In May, Blue Origin won a $3.4 billion NASA contract for lunar lander work.
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