There’s political giving by the S&P 500 CEOs, and then there’s Jeff Bezos’s giving.
The Amazon.com Inc. /zigman2/quotes/210331248/composite AMZN -0.47% chief executive‘s outlays in the current election cycle top the spending by any other boss of an S&P 500 company by more than a factor of 10.
Bezos, whose other business interests include the Washington Post and spaceflight startup Blue Origin, contributed a total of $10.2 million, according to MarketWatch’s analysis of itemized filings with the Federal Election Commission that cover donations between Jan. 1, 2017, and Aug. 31, 2018. That’s far ahead of the CEO ranked second in election-related spending, as shown in our graphic. At No. 2 is Hess Corp.’s /zigman2/quotes/203832174/composite HES +1.56% John Hess, who gave a total of $877,600 and has focused on supporting Republicans.
The Amazon boss jumped to No. 1 thanks to his September donation of $10 million to a nonpartisan super PAC that aims to elect military veterans to Congress. That super PAC, With Honor Fund, supports both Democratic candidates and Republicans, and its stated goals include backing politicians who will work across the political divide, as well as stemming a recent decline in veterans serving in Congress.
Bezos, dubbed the world’s richest man in July when his fortune topped $150 billion, could be scoring brownie points with most Americans due to this donation.
“Donating to a group whose purpose is to elect more veterans is less controversial than donating to a strictly partisan super PAC. It’s hard to argue with that mission, so that could be seen as an act of goodwill,” said Sarah Bryner, research director for the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign-finance watchdog.
The $10 million gift comes as Amazon increasingly draws antitrust-focused criticisms due to its dominance of online retail, where its U.S. market share is an estimated 49% . The donation also arrived as Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Democrat, was blasting the e-commerce giant in early September for how little it paid its lowest-earning workers, as he rolled out his “Stop BEZOS Act.” In early October, Sanders praised Bezos after Amazon announced it was raising its minimum wage to $15 an hour for all U.S. workers.
Could the With Honor Fund contribution quiet the critics?
“My opinion is that he’s not doing this to try to soften any edges around company concerns,” said Steve Delfin, who works as an adviser to corporations and philanthropies on their giving. “I think this is being driven by his own personal interests.”
Amazon itself can take actions aimed at addressing concerns about the company, Delfin added.
Amazon declined to comment on its CEO’s goals with the donation. With Honor Fund’s founder, Rye Barcott, said in September that making a gift that was “different and disruptive” appealed to Bezos and his wife, MacKenzie, as did the super PAC’s “focus on values and integrity in our national discourse.”
In June 2017, Bezos posted a message on Twitter asking for suggestions for philanthropic giving. He said in the tweet that he wanted to help people “ in the here and now .” Donating to the veterans-focused group could have an immediate impact, Delfin noted. But the philanthropy adviser also warned that Bezos can play it close to the vest, with not many people apprised of his exact thinking. The prior large political donation by Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos was a $2.5 million contribution backing a 2012 referendum to legalize same-sex marriage in Washington state, where they live and where Amazon is based.
Bezos’s big nonpartisan giving in this election cycle stands out when compared with how other FAANG CEOs are donating. Netflix Inc.’s /zigman2/quotes/202353025/composite NFLX +1.23% Reed Hastings reported $571,600 in contributions to Democratic groups — a big sum, even if Bezos gave 18 times more to With Honor Fund. Meanwhile, Facebook Inc.’s /zigman2/quotes/205064656/composite FB -1.32% Mark Zuckerberg , Apple Inc.’s /zigman2/quotes/202934861/composite AAPL +0.44% Tim Cook and Google parent Alphabet Inc.’s /zigman2/quotes/205453964/composite GOOG +0.06% /zigman2/quotes/202490156/composite GOOGL -0.08% Larry Page have reported donations of $10,000 or less.
While Bezos tops all S&P 500 CEOs in political giving, he’s not the top dog among all American chief executives. Michael Bloomberg, CEO of privately held Bloomberg LP, has signaled that he plans to spend $80 million to elect Democrats in 2018, though recent filings show just $6.6 million in outlays. Meanwhile, Las Vegas Sands Corp. /zigman2/quotes/208792014/composite LVS +2.00% CEO Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, have shelled out more than $90 million to GOP causes so far this election cycle, but Sands isn’t part of the S&P 500 /zigman2/quotes/210599714/realtime SPX +1.48% , and Richard Uihlein, CEO of privately held Uline Inc., has spent more than $21 million in support of Republican candidates in the current cycle.
Note on methodology: MarketWatch’s figures cover only contributions that identify an individual donor, and any donations to a committee that total less than $200 are not included. To compile the database of CEO political spending, MarketWatch cross-referenced itemized contribution receipts as reported to the FEC with FactSet’s list of CEOs of S&P 500 companies. Any person who was CEO of an S&P 500 company between Jan. 1, 2017, and Aug. 31, 2018, will appear in the database, even if he or she is no longer in that position.
Graphic by Terrence Horan and Jessica Marmor Shaw.
This report was first published on Oct. 18, 2018.