Bezos Crowdsources His Next Philanthropic Effort

Amazon's Jeff Bezos is crowdsourcing ideas for his next philanthropic effort. Is this a good idea?

Back in 2015, Jeff Bezos made the Forbes list with a net worth of “only” $34.2 million. Photo: aradaphotography / Shutterstock.com

On June 15, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos wrote a tweet nobody expected.

It was an image with the text “This tweet is a request fro ideas. I’m thinking about a philanthropy strategy that is the opposite of how I mostly spend my time—working on the long term. For philanthropy, I find I’m drawn to the other end of the spectrum: the right now…I’m thinking I want much of my philanthropic activity to e helping people in the here and now—short term—at the intersection of urgent need and lasting impact. If you have ideas, just reply to this tweet with the idea (and if you think this approach is wrong, would love to hear that too).”

Amazon recently made a commitment that outlines the near-term effort he has in mind: the company provided Mary’s Place, a homeless shelter for families, with a permanent home in a new Amazon office building that will begin construction later this year.

“I would call it surprising, but welcome,” Jacob Harold, the president of GuideStar, told the New York Times. “It’s rare for big-dollar donors to be honest about their desire for short-term results.”

Bezos didn’t say how much money he planned to commit, but give the sheer scope of his wealth—he is now the second richest man in the world—his giving to this point has been pretty modest. He and his family have donated $15 million to Princeton University (Bezos’ alma mater), and $35 million to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle (the largest donation in Fred Hutch’s history).

The replies to Bezos’s tweet came fast and furious—more than 3,600 of them just five hours after his request—with suggestions ranging from contributing to affordable housing, LGBT causes, and veterans’ organizations.

But Bezos’ request is a bit problematic. First of all, crowdsourcing philanthropic ideas has had mixed success. “The denominator of ideas you will get in, the vast majority of ideas which are not good, not viable, will flood this process,” said Larry Brilliant, acting chairman of the Skoll Global Threats Fund, a philanthropy created by eBay co-founder Jeff Skoll, who formerly ran Google’s philanthropic division.

Secondly, as Jake Hayman wrote in Forbes, there are issues with Twitter’s demographic and the desire to accomplish short-term goals that concurrently have long-term results.

Of Twitter, Hayman wrote that “it is mainly an American platform (so lack of insight from around the world), it is … disproportionately male and disproportionately from more privileged user groups.” Instead, Hayman suggested that Bezos ask, and listen to, the communities he wants to serve rather than bypassing them by the sheer nature of the platform’s demographics.

Hayman said that it’s an impossible oxymoron to spend money on short-term activity that has lasting impact. “It’s the business equivalent of looking for ‘safe, proven investments’ with imminent 10-fold returns. It doesn’t happen,” he wrote.

He also argued that short-term philanthropy resulting in long-term change is “a flawed strategy based on a misunderstanding of how social change happens and a longing for instant personal gratification that clouds judgment.”

Hayman suggested that Bezos spend real time with the people on the front lines of social change and social assistance charities like Mary’s Place. “You would very quickly hear a common message: that the answer is not to provide shelter and employment services to homeless families everywhere but instead to fix the systems that have consistently and repeatedly failed people to the point at which they rely on charity.”

What do you think? Is it possible to make a short-term philanthropic commitment and get long-term results? What would you suggest to Jeff Bezos’s request for ideas on how to spend his philanthropic dollars? Please let me know in the comments.

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