3 March 2020

In episode 67 we look at the recent announcement by the world’s richest man, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, that he is going to donate $10bn to tackle global climate issues. We ask: what do we know so far, what has the reaction been, and what does this story highlight about the key issues when it comes to philanthropy currently? Including:

  • Does Bezos’s use of his own Instagram channel to make the announcement reflect a desire on part of big donors to control their own narrative, much as populist politicians have harnessed Twitter etc. to speak directly to voters?
  • Is Bezos’ decision to focus on climate issues an easy one, because it is the obvious cause right now; or a brave one because he knows it will bring scrutiny of Amazon’s own environmental impact?
  • Will this result in more big donors getting involved in climate issues, because it puts a marker down; or will they be crowded out by the scale of Bezos philanthropic resources?
  • Given Bezos has previous pitched his interest in fairly radical ideas such as space travel and extra-planetary expansion as the best way of securing the planet’s future, does this new fund represent an acknowledgment that we also need to focus on shorter-term solutions?
  • What form is this new vehicle going to take? (Foundation, DAF, LLC etc?)
  • Will it have a limited life (i.e. is the aim to spend all of the $10bn as soon as possible, or build for the longer term?
  • Will it fund advocacy and lobbying, or just “direct services”?
  • Bezos says that new vehicle will “fund any effort that offers a real possibility to help preserve and protect the natural world". Who is going to assess those “possibilities”? Will the process be democratised, or will it end up concentrating a huge amount of power in the hands of a small number of unelected people?
  • In the reaction to the story, what has been the balance of praise, scrutiny and cynicism?
  • Is the donation not big enough (because it is only 7% of Bezos’s total wealth), or too big (because it puts too much power in his hands to dictate the direction of policy and spending)?
  • How do we understand this gift in the context of concerns about Bezos and Amazon’s tax affairs, concerns about Amazon’s treatment of employees, and concerns about the company’s own environmental impact?
  • Since this is only a pledge at this point, how do we keep track of delivery?
  • Is there a danger that some critical responses to stories like this ignore nuance and contextual factors, and instead end up making arguments against philanthropy as a whole that are unwarranted?

Rhodri Davies

Rhodri Davies

Head of Policy

Rhodri leads Giving Thought, our in-house think tank focusing on current and future issues affecting philanthropy and civil society. Rhodri has spent nearly a decade specialising in public policy around philanthropy and the work of charities, and has researched, written and presented on a wide range of topics. He has a first-class degree in Mathematics and Philosophy from the University of Oxford.   Read more about Rhodri



About the Giving Thought podcast

The Giving Thought podcast is an exploration of trends in global philanthropy and civil society. Launched in 2017 it is recognised as an insightful and influential source of philanthropic debate.  Rhodri Davies director of our Giving Thought Think Tank hosts the podcast, discussing contemporary issues and interviewing sector experts. Episodes are also available free on iTunes and Libsyn.

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