Not all charitable donations end up in the right place
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.
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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:
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.