6 radically diverse reactions to Bezos’ $2 billion giving
This article seeks to lay out a handful of the (many) diverse, often critical, but universally animated, responses to Jeff & Mackenzie Bezos’ recent philanthropic announcement on September 13, 2018. The charitable fund will “focus on two areas,” Bezos explained: “funding existing non-profits that help homeless families, and creating a network of new, non-profit, tier-one pre-schools in low-income communities.” While comparisons closer to the time – such as Ariella Phillips’ post in Chronicle of Philanthropy – essentially documented the Twitter fall-out, here we have the benefit of some further hindsight, and are able to describe the viewpoints in a bit more detail.
‘Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announces $2 billion fund to build preschools, help homeless families’
By Elizabeth Weise, September 13. Full article.
Weise presents an essentially positive description of the Bezos plan. “Two billion dollars is a lot of money, and it could do an incredible amount of good,” said Henry Berman, CEO of Exponent Philanthropy, a nonprofit that supports leanly-staffed philanthropic groups. Bezos said the network will give the organization the opportunity “to learn, invent and improve,” using the same principles that have driven Amazon’s growth. The main immediate question is exactly how the donation will be organised – namely the type of vehicle organisation. She notes that the Bezos’ haven’t signed the famous ‘Giving Pledge’. Read the full article (4 minutes).
‘Jeff Bezos’ $2 Billion Donation to Build Preschools and Fight Homelessness Is, Well, Morally Complicated’
Weissman presents views of both sympathisers and detractors of the announcement. He begins by acknowledging the existence of many unanswered questions “about the details”, but stating that “the move seems like a promising and soundly straightforward attempt to help America’s poor. Next he shows how the timing of the announcement is fraught, but quotes David Callahan, editor of Inside Philanthropy, who speculated that “Bezos seemed to have a “smart plan””, which avoided common traps billionaires fall into when trying to donate large sums – namely picking underfunded causes (homelessness and pre-K). $2 billion, a relatively small proportion of Bezos’ total wealth, is viewed as a a measured starting point, and it’s noted that Bezos is giving to homelessness groups already doing good work, “rather than trying to bigfoot them”. However, the fact that Amazon has become “an almost perfect diorama of American inequality”, the lack of democratic accountability of the initiative, and the false-economy of bypassing public service provision, resonate as problems not satisfactorily addressed by the Day One approach. Read the full article (6 minutes).
‘Will Bezos Heed Other Education Philanthropy Mistakes?’
Camera situates Bezos’ gift in the context of other tech giants – including Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Laurene Powell – who have given to various education initiatives. She notes that debates about the influence such philanthropists wield over public education, and their overall impact, have existed for some time – with the Gates’ for example being “widely criticised for funnelling funding into what some consider silver-bullet policies or the latest education fad”. Zuckerbeg’s lack of consideration for community wants and needs is also pointed out in relation to his investment in Newark public schools in 2010. Assistant professor at Cleveland State University Jeffrey Snyder, who has studied the impact of education philanthropy, notes that no mega donor before Bezos has made preschool their “sole focus”, and questions, along with Laura Bornfreund, director of early and elementary education policy at New America, whether Bezos’ spent the time working with communities to understand whether his Montessori-like approach has buy-in. Overall commentary from within the education sector is cautious but hesitantly optimistic. Read the full article (5 minutes).
‘Why Jeff Bezos’ Philanthropy Plan Is Well-Intended — and Misguided’
By Anand Giridharadas, September 18. Full article.
“Where’s the good in the world, and how can we spread it?” Anand Giridharadas calls for critical self-reflection and re-imagining in the wake of Jeff Bezos’ entrance into mega-philanthropy.. The author argues that the $2 billion gift is sadly, willfully blind “towards systems, root causes, and the distribution of power”. The question: “Is the solution to our winners-take-all economy lavish giving by the winners — or reforms that would force winners to take less?” sits at the heart of the backlash against big tech’s movement into the philanthropic complex, particularly in the US. Giridharadas sees the moment as a lightning rod for the rethinking of philanthropists’ approaches to ‘giving back’. Read the full article (6 minutes).
‘One big problem with how Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos are spending a small share of their fortune’
As a political theorist who studies the ethics of philanthropy, Lechterman argues that “Bezos’s charitable turn raises grave concerns about the pervasive power of business moguls”. Whether it’s seen as a publicity-stunt distraction, an illegitimate erosion of democracy, or a tax-rought (which again feeds into the erosion of public accountability), Bezos’ behaviour raises serious questions about his generosity and respect for democracy. Lechterman concludes that Bezos’ undergirding fight is “with the limits on economic power that democracy requires”. Read the full article (6 minutes).
‘Jeff Bezos is what democracy needs right now’
By Tyler Cowen, September 24. Full article.
Cowen takes it upon himself to “speak up for private philanthropy”, while acknowledging that the future fruits of Bezos’ gift cannot of course yet be known. He counters a criticism aimed at Bezos for “dictating terms”, by asserting this is unlikely given that he will have to “work through many institutions” and associated “bureaucracy”. His clearer and bigger claim is that “philanthropy operates a lot more like democracy than it might – and in fact, it may be too democratic”, because, like voters who wish for a particular set of outcomes, what philanthropists “get will be filtered through broadly similar constraints of bureaucracy and decentralized incentives”. Despite these broad brush strokes, Cowen does concede that there is “room for both democracy and philanthropy in American society”, but is quick to caveat this by asserting that democracy is ostensibly ‘for the elderly’ (who as a population receive a high proportion of total public expenditures). “More democracy probably would mean more money for the old and less for the young, to the detriment of America’s long-run future” is another, disappointingly unsubstantiated declaration. He concludes that philanthropy is “experimental by nature”; “more flexible”; and that “there is something sobering about spending one’s own money” – making private philanthropy “exactly what democracy needs”. Read the full article (5 minutes).
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This article is featured in the September-October edition of Connected Giving.