Jeff Bezos Now Has A $2 Billion Charity Fund -- I Have Some Questions

Photo: Mark Wilson, Getty

Jeff Bezos, who is both famously uncharitable and the wealthiest man in modern history, announced today via a tweet that he’d be allocating $US2 billion—a little over 1 per cent of his net worth—to housing and educating underserved communities. So, where’s the catch?

The $US2 billion is, as best we can tell, to be divided between the Day 1 Families Fun and the Day 1 Academies Fund, which will provide homeless services and operate “Montessori-inspired preschools,” respectively. Notably absent is how the money will be divvied up between the two, or over what period of time.

Given all at once, $US2 billion would put a major dent in the hundreds of thousands of Americans without housing—though in all likeliness these funds would be spread over a decade or more. Recall also that Amazon lobbied hard (and successfully) to repeal a progressive tax in its home city of Seattle that would have taken funds from large corporations and earmarked it to combat the region’s epidemic of homelessness.

Where a “network” of Bezos preschools is concerned, we should be especially sceptical. AltSchool—the Mark Zuckerberg and Peter Thiel-backed grade schools—abruptly shuttered two of its four locations last year and is now looking to partner with existing public schools. The construction of the Primary School, another Zuckerberg venture, led to the mass eviction of families in the area. WeWork has moved into the creation or acquisition of design, coding, and grade schools. (Disclosure: Peter Thiel secretly funded a lawsuit that bankrupted Gizmodo’s former parent company, Gawker Media.)

At worst, these end up as destructive, expensive follies; at worst, they create a monopolistic path directly from early education to employment under the auspices of a single company—something Amazon already dipped a toe in by seeding a logistics mentorship program at a high school in San Bernardino, California.

This fear, of course, is reliant upon any of this $US2 billion materialising. We reached out to Amazon for more information and were directed to contact four individuals who were “briefed and are willing to talk to media”—the CEOs of Community of Hope, the National Alliance for Ending Homelessness, the Buffett Early Childhood Fund, and Mary’s Place (which receives a special mention in Bezos’s announcement.) Amazon would not provide comment on the Day 1 Fund or contact information for anyone directly involved in disbursement.

Nan Roman, of the National Alliance for Ending Homelessness, and Jesse Rasmussen, of Buffett Early Childhood Fund, were the two suggested contacts who were able to provide comment. Neither was aware of any information beyond what was disclosed by Bezos, and both said their organisations had not been asked to advise the use of the Day 1 funds. While Roman and Rasmussen each expressed excitement at the possibility of new philanthropic investment in their areas of concern, neither seemed entirely sure why Amazon had recommended them as points of contact for media inquiries.

The paucity of information is particularly jarring considering Bezos had months to prepare. The Amazon CEO began crowdfunding ideas on how to spend his considerable wealth back in June, and the lack of specific details, from him or his team, suggests the Day 1 Fund announcement is less a sincere move into philanthropy than another salvo in Amazon’s ongoing charm offensive—which famously involved astroturfed PR bought with gift cards.

I want to believe Jeff Bezos has turned a leaf, that the growing concern over the working conditions alleged to Gizmodo and other outlets by his own workers has led the CEO to consider humanity at large a worthy investment. I’m going to need a few answers first.

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