Investor Alert

Feb. 12, 2021, 10:03 a.m. EST

Will Jeff Bezos’s philanthropy provide a ‘halo effect’ for Amazon? Critics say yes.

By Leslie Albrecht

Jeff Bezos built a world-changing e-commerce and technology empire with Amazon, and now he says he’s turning his time and energy to another realm where he can have a global impact: philanthropy.

As he steps down as CEO of Amazon (NAS:AMZN) , he’ll trade running a business where success is measured in the speed of delivery and outcomes are tabulated in earnings reports for a world where progress happens over years, not minutes, and targets and goals can be elusive.

“I’m super passionate about the impact I think these organizations can have,” Bezos wrote of his philanthropic ventures in an email to employees announcing his job switch.

Bezos, who was the world’s highest-net-worth individual until Elon Musk displaced him earlier this year, had in the past been relatively quiet about how and whether he spends his money for the public good. In 2017, nearly 20 years after becoming a billionaire, he broke his silence and asked for ideas on how to spend his fortune on charitable giving.

The next year he and his then-wife, MacKenzie Scott, unveiled the Day One Fund, a $2 billion initiative to target homelessness and early childhood education. That pledge earned Bezos his debut appearance on the list of America’s top philanthropists . In 2020, his $10 billion pledge to start the Bezos Earth Fund was the single largest philanthropic donation of the year. So far the fund has awarded about $791 million in grants .

“This $791 million in donations is just the beginning of my $10 billion commitment to fund scientists, activists, NGOs, and others,” Bezos wrote on Instagram. “We can all protect Earth’s future by taking bold action now.”

So what’s the next bold action for Bezos and his charitable giving? No one knows yet — and that’s just one of several unanswered questions about the centibillionaire’s philanthropy. Here are 5 other questions worth asking:

How much will Bezos spend on philanthropy and how fast?

Bezos is a notable exception among the mega-wealthy: He hasn’t signed the Giving Pledge, the campaign created by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates to encourage billionaires to promise to give away the majority of their wealth during their lifetimes or in their wills. He’s made no public declaration of his intentions in terms of the speed and scale of his giving.

“What people want to know is how much of his fortune will go to charity — will he commit to doing what the Giving Pledgers (including MacKenzie Scott) have done and promise at least half of their wealth to charity?” Chronicle of Philanthropy editor Stacy Palmer told MarketWatch in an email, referring to Bezos’s ex-wife . “Will he try to give most of his fortune while he is alive (that means a really fast pace if he is giving a lot of his wealth).”

Bezos is used to thinking about how fast Amazon can do things, and that skill will come in handy if he decides to embrace a “giving while living” strategy. Wealthy people who aspire to give away their money while they’re still alive sometimes hit a roadblock: they accumulate wealth so fast that it’s difficult to give it away quickly enough to honor their promise .

The question of how much Bezos — whose estimated net worth is around $197 billion — will give away and how fast he’ll do it isn’t just voyeuristic curiosity. It has far-reaching implications, says Ben Soskis, a research associate in the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute who studies the history of philanthropy .

“He has so much money that the scale question and the pacing question is really important, because it could fundamentally transform certain fields,” Soskis said.

How transparent will Bezos be about his charitable giving?

The public may have a tough time learning the details of Bezos’ giving unless he wants to disclose them. The Bezos Day One Fund and the Bezos Earth Fund do not appear to be private foundations. They’re not registered charities with the IRS. An Amazon spokeswoman said she could not share details on what type of entities they are.

If they’re not private foundations, it could be more difficult to find out how they’re spending their money. Foundations are legally required to spend a certain amount each year and report their grants to the IRS, but Bezos appears to be under no such obligation.

Bezos’s 2017 tweet asking for suggestions on how to spend his money “broached this faux transparent intimacy that created anticipation that he would be more open about his giving,” Soskis said. “That vision has not come to fruition. He’s been really strikingly reticent and resistant to giving details about his giving.”

Bezos typically makes a very large pledge — the $10 billion climate pledge, for example — without providing details on how and when the money will be spent. That could change now that Bezos is more focused on his philanthropy, Soskis noted. “It’s vital that the public have more information about the process and direction of his philanthropy,” Soskis said.

Bezos isn’t the only megadonor without a formal apparatus for explaining their giving to the public. More traditional philanthropic entities such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation issue annual reports on their grant-making and answer press inquiries. Newer philanthropists reveal their giving on their own terms.

MacKenzie Scott announced her $4 billion giving spree in a Medium post; Twitter (NYS:TWTR) CEO Jack Dorsey posts his charitable LLC’s grants on a public Google (NAS:GOOG) (NAS:GOOGL) spreadsheet ; Elon Musk’s foundation has a minimalist website and keeps the bulk of its assets in a donor-advised fund , a giving vehicle that can distribute money anonymously to nonprofits.

However, publicizing giving can sometimes be a double-edged sword, said Melissa Berman, president and CEO of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. “On the one hand, we hope that more people publicly giving to climate change will inspire more philanthropy in that space, because it’s underfunded, even though we talk about it all the time,” said Berman. However, “big names in philanthropy draw people in, but they can also give people the sense that the problem is solved.”

Who will hold Bezos accountable?

As the head of a public company, Bezos is beholden to shareholders, regulators such as the SEC and the IRS and, of course, Amazon customers. Philanthropy, on the other hand, is “the only power center in our society that has no real bottom line and is accountable to no one,” David Callahan, founder of the philanthropy publication Inside Philanthropy, once wrote .

Pressure to be more accountable has mounted as critics take aim at philanthropy. “There’s a much greater expectation that wealth holders are part of the solution to the world’s problems than there has been in a long time,” Berman said.

“Part of that has to do with rising income inequality,” Berman added. “All of the wealth holders we talk to feel that pressure — from the media, from their peers, from their customers and from the organizations that they want to work with — that they need to be part of the solution and make it possible for more people to succeed the way they did. We now have public lists of who gave the most money last year. We didn’t have that 15 years ago.”

Will Bezos’s philanthropy give Amazon a ‘halo effect’?

Critics of philanthropy often charge that the wealthy use giving away money as a smokescreen to distract from the economic injustices that helped them earn their money in the first place. In other words, they say it will provide a “halo effect.”

“Counting the minutes before there’s a significant announcement about a philanthropic gift to cover up all this bad press,” tweeted Edgar Villanueva, an advocate for socially just philanthropy and author of “Decolonizing Wealth,” after Bezos’ departure was announced. He was referring to Amazon ending hazard pay for warehouse workers and firing a worker who advocated for forming a union.

(When the company ended the extra $2 hour in hazard pay , a spokeswoman noted that Amazon’s $15 an hour starting wage was higher than many of its competitors, and that the company had paid “our team and partners nearly $800 million extra since COVID-19 started while continuing to offer full benefits from day one of employment.” The company said the worker who was fired lost his job because he violated a safety rule .)

Soskis doesn’t think Bezos’ philanthropy will do much to dampen criticism of Amazon. “There’s going to be a natural assumption that this announcement is related to Amazon’s PR strategy, that this is an attempt of Bezos to do some reputation laundering,” Soskis said, noting that news of Bezos stepping down came the same week the company settled a $61.7 million case with the Federal Trade Commission alleging that Amazon withheld tips from its contract drivers. (An Amazon spokeswoman told MarketWatch the company’s contract drivers earn “among the best in the industry at over $25 an hour on average.”)

Soskis believes it’s unlikely that Bezos’ philanthropy will divert public attention from Amazon. “He is so clearly identified with the company that his engagement with philanthropy will make him a more fully public figure than he was before,” Soskis said. “Every occasion that he engages with the public as a philanthropist provides opportunity for oppositional scrutiny on Amazon. This is going to only heighten attention on Amazon’s corporate practices.”

Will he stick to the causes he’s supported so far, or will his philanthropy change?

Bezos’ early philanthropic gifts were a bit of a hodge-podge, including, among others, a $10 million donation to the Museum of History & Industry in Seattle; a $2.5 million gift to the campaign to legalize gay marriage in Washington State and a $33 million donation to fund 1,000 college scholarships for “Dreamers,” or immigrants living in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy.

See also: Amazon’s Jeff Bezos ranks No. 1 among S&P 500 CEOs in political spending

His recent multi-billion dollar initiatives to address homelessness, start a network of free preschools and address climate change are Bezos’ biggest bets to date. So far he’s engaged in a few different styles of philanthropy, Soskis said, and it’s not yet clear which type of donor he’ll be.

With the Day One Fund, Bezos and his then-wife MacKenzie made contributions with seemingly few strings attached — a form of what’s called “trust-based” philanthropy, which upends the traditional power dynamic between funder and recipient. (MacKenzie Scott has been praised for deploying that strategy as she’s handed out money at a furious rate since her divorce.)

But with his network of free preschools , Bezos has embraced a more donor-centric model — his name is on the schools, and the schools are entirely new entities created by his nonprofit, Day One Academies. They are a new product, if you will, and as he has said, the students are the customer.

Bezos said in a 2017 tweet that “I’m thinking I want much of my philanthropic activity to be helping people in the here and now — short term — at the intersection of urgent need and lasting impact.”

To succeed in addressing complex challenges like climate change, Bezos will need to listen, learn and be open to different types of collaboration and partnerships, said Una Osili, a professor of economics and philanthropic studies at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

“There are a lot of skills that business leaders can bring to bear at solving social-sector problems,” Osili said. “At the same time, there’s a cautionary note — solving hunger, for example, is very different than the work that Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos were doing before. One thing that is very different about philanthropy is the notion that you’re working within communities and defining goals with communities. The notion of success isn’t about maximizing a profit, it’s about maximizing social return, and really identifying communities and what their needs are.”

Link to MarketWatch's Slice.