Jeff Bezos Heeds His Critics

Theodore Schleifer
September 9, 2021

There are few charitable programs more important, and therefore deserving of more scrutiny, than Jeff Bezos’s pledge to spend $10 billion of his Amazon fortune on combating climate change. There have been two dominant criticisms of the Bezos Earth Fund since it was announced early last year. The first has revolved around transparency: Bezos has shared next to nothing about what exactly the Earth Fund is, structurally, which frustrates me. More importantly, perhaps, the early grants from Bezos have been somewhat obvious, even unimaginative, padding the coffers of the same mega-charities, such as the Nature Conservancy and the World Resources Institute, that are already well-funded. That has bothered some in the sector who have begged Bezos to take riskier swings. Given how much power he now has in climate advocacy, his tics, his proclivities, and his oversights reverberate around the globe.

One of this week’s most underrated headlines is the news that Bezos is sending $150 million this year to nonprofits focused on environmental justice, or climate groups that are led by and serve people of color. Activists have pilloried the world’s wealthiest man for lacking a racial lens in his giving—and for just funding the usual suspects. Bezos, and his new C.E.O. Andrew Steer, heeded their call.

In doing so, Bezos revealed something valuable about his philanthropic strategy that I have picked up on over the years: In this arena, Bezos is very sensitive to public criticism. When The New York Times prepared an exposé about his paltry charitable donations, Bezos tweeted a request for ideas. When his suborbital escapade spurred debate about his terrestrial contributions, he sandwiched totally unrelated nonprofit gifts to Van Jones and José Andrés into the Blue Origin press junket. And when activists saw an oversight emerging at his Earth Fund, Bezos corrected it.

Some of this is just good P.R. which Bezos—aided by the likes of Jay Carney—has always known how to do. But Amazon is all about customer obsession, and as Bezos turns to his post-Amazon life, I’ll be curious whether he keeps reacting to the feedback. After all, sometimes listening to public criticism can lead donors in the wrong direction, too.