Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos unveils new $2 billion Day One charitable fund

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in 2014.

James Martin/Techhnews

Amazon’s CEO and founder Jeff Bezos on Thursday announced the charitable Bezos Day One Fund, making good on his long-awaited plans to starting giving away more of his massive fortune.

The fund will focus on two main areas: the Day 1 Families Fund will give money to existing non-profits that help homeless families, while the Day 1 Academies Fund will create a new network of top-tier preschools in low-income communities. Bezos said the academies fund will create an organization to directly operate the new schools. Also, homeless initiative builds on Amazon’s current support of Mary’s Place, a Seattle homeless shelter nonprofit.

Bezos first requested on Twitter ideas for philanthropies last June. A year later, he offered an update that he planned to announce his giving plans by the end of the summer. He’s scheduled to make a rare public-speaking appearance at the Economic Club of Washington, DC, tonight, where his new fund is sure to be a topic of conversation.

“It fills me with gratitude and optimism to be part of a species so bent on self-improvement,” he wrote Thursday in a four-part message on Twitter.

The Day One name references one of Bezos’ most well-known concepts, which he mentioned in his first investor letter in 1997. The company’s headquarters is also called the Day 1 building. The idea generally means to maintain a startup-like energy of growth and innovation. He describes “Day Two” as “stasis,” followed by “irrelevance” and “decline.”

Despite being the world’s richest person, Bezos hasn’t been a major player in philanthropy. Pressure has grown for him to change that situation, especially because his total wealth has skyrocketed thanks to his 16 percent stake in Amazon.

His fortune is now so gigantic, it’s difficult to fully describe. He’s worth $164 billion, $66 billion more than the second-richest person, Bill Gates, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. As Amazon’s shares have surged this year, Bezos’ worth has risen by $64.7 billion year-to-date (and it’s only September) — that’s more than the total wealth of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the world’s 6th richest person.

With Bezos still leading Amazon and only 54 years old, some argue that he still has plenty of time to start giving. 

But Bezos’ lack of major giving so far has made him a target for criticism about corporate greed, with US Sen. Bernie Sanders deriding Amazon’s treatment of its warehouse workers while Bezos amassed a huge fortune. Additionally, several of Bezos’ ultra-wealthy peers are well on their way to giving large chunks of their wealth, including Zuckerberg, who’s 20 years younger than Amazon’s chief.

Gates created the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to give away billions of dollars, and Zuckerberg and his wife started the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Warren Buffett has donated large portions of his money to the Gates Foundation, as well.

“Among these tech titans, Mark Zuckerberg has been unusual in hitting philanthropy early on. And more commonly people focus on building their career and focus on philanthropy later,” David Callahan, founder and editor of Inside Philanthropy, a digital media site covering charitable giving, said in an interview last month. 

“It’s not easy to give away a lot of money smartly,” Callahan continued, “and a lot of these people who want to give away money well would rather delay giving until they have the time to do it.”

Callahan noted that Gates started Microsoft in 1975, but didn’t turn to large-scale giving until the late ’90s.

Although nearly all of Bezos’ wealth comes from his 16 percent stake in Amazon, it could still make a huge impact when he starts giving more of it away.

Since his tweet last June, Bezos made one donation that garnered plenty of headlines, giving $33 million in January for college scholarships to so-called “Dreamers,” undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children. Earlier this month, he and his wife MacKenzie donated $10 million to a non-partisan fund that works to get military veterans elected, which was his first major political donation.

He’s previously  made donations for health research, science and immigration, according to Inside Philanthropy, including gifts to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. In 2011, Bezos and his wife donated $15 million to Princeton University, their alma mater, to create the Bezos Center for Neural Circuit Dynamics, which develops new techniques to study brain function.

Bezos also sells about $1 billion in Amazon stock every year, but uses that money to fund his private space exploration company Blue Origin.

Bezos’ parents run the Bezos Family Foundation, which regularly donates to causes including medical research and education.

Amazon, too, has started to step up its charitable work in its hometown of Seattle, after generally steering clear of such work in the past. It’s worked with the Mary’s Place, providing the nonprofit with a permanent homeless shelter in one of Amazon’s buildings. In 2013, it also started AmazonSmile, which donates a portion of retail sales to charity.

First published at 8:10 a.m. PT.
Updated, at 8:38 a.m. PT: Adds more information throughout.

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