by Henry Hill
Wednesday, 16
November 2022
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07:15

Jeff Bezos should be careful who he gives his money to

Not all charitable donations end up in the right place
by Henry Hill
Jeff Bezos has pledged to give away over half his wealth in his lifetime. Credit: Getty

Whatever one thinks of the company, Jeff Bezos achieved something extraordinary in building up Amazon (and in amassing the vast fortune that has flowed from it).

Now that he has pledged to give away more than half his wealth, Bezos faces another difficult challenge: finding a way to give effectively, without having his money simply swallowed up by the charity and NGO class.

Billionaires, especially the largely self-made variety, are almost by definition outstanding people, at least in terms of efficacy and achievement. There is no obvious reason these qualities shouldn’t persist when they apply themselves to philanthropic and humanitarian goals.

With the spectacular collapse of Sam Bankman-Fried, the superstar mogul of ‘effective altruism’, or Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, this may not be the best news cycle to make this case. But even if the eventual aim (to colonise Mars) is far-fetched, Musk has delivered real advances in the space sector via SpaceX, a company defined by his personal vision. Here on Earth, meanwhile, Bill Gates has played a key role in the global fight against malaria, spearheading a campaign which saw deaths fall by 60% between 2000 and 2015.

Contrast these approaches with those taken by Mackenzie Scott, Bezos’s ex-wife, who walked away from their marriage with a hefty chunk of the Amazon fortune. According to the Times

So far she has donated at least $12 billion to more than 1,000 organisations […] While the likes of Gates created vast bureaucracies to oversee the distribution of their wealth, recipients of Scott’s generosity reported receiving calls or emails out of the blue before being handed massive grants to do with as they pleased.
- The Times

Unsurprisingly, Scott has been praised for this, and Bezos criticised for the unflattering comparison. But the lack of transparency and accountability is extremely troubling. Who is going to follow up and independently assess the good that money actually did? Gates’s bureaucrats might have.

It is also an unfortunate fact that, while it employs many able and well-intentioned people, the charitable sector is not, shall we say, without its problems. Many readers will remember the saga of the Captain Tom Foundation, but the issues it exhibited are anything but unique.

Were Bezos to start just handing out cheques to various organisations, he would soon surely find (if he bothered to check) that a substantial chunk of the sum had ended up paying handsome salaries and sponsoring lavish events. Far more would be diverted away from any front-line efforts into ‘advocacy’, which is basically lobbying with tax breaks.

As an easy way to win the applause of people cooing over Scott’s philanthropic aerial bombing campaign, it would work. As a means of actually doing good? Not so much.

Instead, Bezos needs to emulate his peers. Like Gates, he should pick a difficult but concrete mission and then apply not just his fortune but his operational and business acumen to it, setting clear objectives with criteria for failure and making sure any funds are spent effectively.

The charity sector won’t cheer as loudly as they would for an unrestricted donation campaign. But that is something we should welcome.

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Steve Elliott
Steve Elliott
15 days ago

Some of these billionaires like Bill Gates like to call themselves philanthropists but I don’t think they are. They are using their money to push their own agendas.

Justin Clark
Justin Clark
14 days ago
Reply to  Steve Elliott

tax efficient too…. donate rather than cough up

Noel Chiappa
Noel Chiappa
14 days ago
Reply to  Steve Elliott

The statement in general strikes me as correct, but I question citing Gates as an exemplar. How is attacking malaria an agenda?
I don’t know enough about Gates’ post-Microsoft life to give it an overall rating, but if his malaria-related effort has resulted in a 60% drop in malaria deaths, that’s a huge accomplishment.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
15 days ago

Their “philanthropy” is just conceit and a desire to control. Dumping vast amounts of cash into sector or – particularly – into a relatively poor country distorts economic incentives and creates dependency. They would do better to call a halt to their monopolistic practices, and not accrue such wealth to themselves in the first place.

Ed Cameron
Ed Cameron
15 days ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

Does your or Mr Elliott’s comment apply to the eradication of Malaria?
Is this money not of more use in circulation than in the vaults of Messrs Gates and Bezos (or spent on the construction of giant clocks inside mountains (Unherd, passim))?
Bezos did say he had to establish the means by which the money could be distributed – hopefully an open and auditable framework with necessary governance, as alluded to by J Bryant.
Benefit of the doubt?

Last edited 15 days ago by Ed Cameron
Steve Elliott
Steve Elliott
15 days ago
Reply to  Ed Cameron

I take your point Ed but both Gates and Soros are helping to fund Extinction Rebellion along with a number of other billionaires. Gates is buying up farmland in the US, backing Artificial Meat companies as well as promoting them in the name of Saving the Planet. That’s his own agenda. I can see that people may think that’s a good thing but I don’t. Same with his investment in GM. His philanthropy is not neutral. There’s no discussion or debate about it. I agree with Stephen Walsh that it’s about control.
It’s said that if you control the food and control the energy you control the people. I don’t know who said that but I think it’s right and I find it sinister.

Justin Clark
Justin Clark
14 days ago
Reply to  Ed Cameron

“But Bill Gates has taken a more pessimistic tone in his recent public statements about the future of the fight against malaria. In June, he warned us that progress was slowing thanks to drug and insecticide resistance, and in July he wrote about how infection rates have plateaued or increased.”
https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2019/10/3/20893907/malaria-gates-study-eradication-mosquitos
There’s good and bad here – smoke and mirrors – it’s all about Power and Influence. Gates imho is a very dangerous man.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
15 days ago

Last year a sustained net gain fusion reaction was achieved for the first time, proving that it can be done. Now it needs a lot of money.

If Bezos were to provide that money he’d stand a reasonable chance of going down in history as humanity’s greatest benefactor.

Fat chance though, eh?

LCarey Rowland
LCarey Rowland
15 days ago

When I had completed my first novel, Glass half-Full, many years ago, I stood at my printer, watching, as it cranked out page after page of newly-composed historical fiction. After hole-punching all those pages, then shuffling them into a dime-store binder, I then addressed them to Simon & Schuster, and/or Random House, Harper Collins or Penguin, and mailed those manuscripts. After a while, what happened?
You guessed it, my “over the transom” strategy for bustin’ into the big time had no end in sight, which is to say, nothing happened, not even a rejection letter!
But hey, not to worry! Thanks to Jeff Bezos and his Kindle Direct Publishing, KDP, I can now distribute, by my own means, partnering with booksellers and the luck of the game . . . all four of my historical fiction novels. They are being distributed in countries all over the world. You can purchase Glass half-Full, Glass Chimera, Smoke and King of Soul on Amazon! Anyone in the world can read my stories.
That’s life for a 21st-century author.
Thanks, Jeff & Co . . . couldn’t have done it without you.

J Bryant
J Bryant
15 days ago

Having seen the robotic ruthlessness with which Bezos built Amazon, I doubt he’ll be mindlessly sprinkling pixie dust on random charities.

Muhammad Din Abbasi
Muhammad Din Abbasi
14 days ago

Regards