Bezos’ announcement followed his personal spaceflight aboard a Blue Origin craft. Photo: Thomas Kelley/shutterstock
Bezos’ announcement followed his personal spaceflight aboard a Blue Origin craft. Photo: Thomas Kelley/shutterstock

We’ve begun to use the phrase “apex donor” to describe a new crop of billionaire givers who’ve thrown out the old playbook, employing unusual grantmaking practices to move large chunks of money fast and largely free of restrictions. MacKenzie Scott is the standout example, but this week gave us yet another indication that her ex-husband is also keen to play in those waters.

Right on the heels of his trip to the edge of space aboard a capsule launched by his own company, Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos made an unexpected announcement. He’s donating $200 million to charity, and he has given two men, Van Jones and José Andrés, total liberty to disburse $100 million apiece to the nonprofits of their choice.

In a post-spaceflight press conference, Bezos described these “Courage and Civility Awards” as a new philanthropic initiative, inviting the expectation that they won’t be a one-off. He also couched the awards in the language of bringing people together. “We need unifiers and not vilifiers,” Bezos said. “We want people who argue hard and act hard for what they truly believe, but they do that always with civility and never ad hominem attacks.”

Coming as it does a week after Bezos pledged $200 million to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, and immediately after he touched down, this seems like a pretty blatant attempt to secure good publicity after the Amazon founder’s “billionaire space race” with Richard Branson became the talk of the internet—talk that hasn’t painted the tycoons in a favorable light. But beyond the PR angle, these new awards have quite a lot to tell us about how Bezos’ giving may evolve, and what version of the apex donor playbook he’s likely to adopt.

Playing it safe

For one thing, as if it wasn’t obvious already, Bezos’ selection of Jones and Andres shows he’s no radical. As his philanthropy develops—and it’s still in its early stages—the world’s richest man has taken a fairly uncontroversial “liberal but not progressive” approach, in contrast to the more left-friendly giving of fellow apex donors like Scott and Jack Dorsey. Bezos’ comments during the press conference appear to confirm that course, striking an explicitly centrist tone. “Try being courageous and civil. Try being courageous and a unifier,” he said.

José Andrés, at least, is unlikely to ruffle many feathers with his half of the pot. The celebrated chef is noted for his humanitarian work through the nonprofit he founded, World Central Kitchen, which primarily provides food aid in the aftermath of natural disasters. Originally from Spain, Andres moved to the U.S. as a young man and built a career as a celebrity chef and restaurateur before founding World Central Kitchen in 2010.

It seems as if Andrés will direct the $100 million to his own charity, although it’s hard to say for sure. In his comments at the conference, the chef spoke of an intention to tackle structural problems. “This award itself cannot feed the world on its own, but this is the start of a new chapter for us. It’ll allow us to think beyond the next hurricane to the bigger challenges we face,” Andrés said.

If he wanted, Bezos could have picked two awardees in the humanitarian aid space and kept the proceedings entirely innocuous. But he did stir things up a bit by selecting Jones. A former special advisor to President Obama and longtime CNN commentator, Jones’ imprint in the nonprofit world is quite extensive. Among numerous roles, Jones co-founded and leads the Dream Corps, a social enterprise outfit, and also heads the REFORM Alliance, founded several years back to advance criminal justice reform with a cadre of high-powered entertainers and philanthropists at the helm.

Jones has a mixed reputation in progressive circles. That stems in part from his willingness to amicably cooperate with the Trump administration around certain moderate reforms like the 2018 First Step Act, a bipartisan criminal justice bill. He also recently released a documentary titled “Reunited America” along with Meghan McCain, the conservative voice on “The View,” that sought to bridge the nation’s political divide. (It didn’t.) As an aside, it is, in fact, Andrés who has tangled with Trump in the past, over a decision to withdraw a restaurant location from the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C.

By picking the relatively moderate Jones, Bezos has declined, for now, to get behind more progressive Black nonprofit leaders in the way his fellow apex donors have done with gifts to Black Lives Matter movement groups that are seeking more transformative change.

It’s unclear as of now exactly what Jones plans to do with his $100 million, but multiple organizations are likely to get a piece. In a press conference with no shortage of odd statements, Jones offered his own, cementing his centrist bona fides by talking about bridging the divides of sector and class and speaking favorably about the “genius” of contemporary business magnates.

“Can you imagine,” Jones said, “grassroots folks from Appalachia, from the hood, [from] Native American reservations, having enough money to be able to connect with the geniuses that have disrupted the space industry, disrupted taxis and hotels and bookstores, to start disrupting poverty, to start disrupting pollution, to start disrupting the $90 billion prison industry together?”

Lean and mean

One big question going forward is whether Bezos intends to make a habit of this. Unlike Scott’s giving, Bezos’ philanthropy has been scattershot and feels reactive, a way to snatch up some good press while his daily efforts are focused elsewhere. In this, he’s closer to fellow space-racing billionaire Elon Musk, another emerging apex donor with an imagination-defying fortune and a relatively sparse giving record.

That said, we have been getting some clarity about Bezos’ philanthropic outlook, particularly through his big pledge last year of $10 billion to fight climate change via the Bezos Earth Fund, close to $1 billion of which has gone out the door. Though much of that money has gone to well-established “big green” organizations, there have been some signs of a more progressive strain amidst Bezos’ climate giving.

What is radical about these new awards, though, is the mechanism of their distribution. Plenty of individuals wield power over where philanthropic money goes—just take a look at our newly released Inside Philanthropy Power List—but it’s still rare to see giving handled quite like this.

Here are two individuals who have been given complete autonomy over where to direct sums of money that rival the grantmaking budgets of all but the largest of foundations. It’s at once an exercise in trust by Bezos as well as a full-throated exercise in power. In the millennia-old tradition of patronage, it pays to know Bezos, and it pays to be known by him.

Bezos embraced the lean-and-mean philosophy in his own remarks. “No bureaucracy, no committees, they just do what they want,” he said. “They can give it all to their own charity, or they can share the wealth. It’s up to them.”

Talk of civility

Just to speculate a bit, say these personality-driven awards become a regular occurrence. Say we have, on a semi-annual basis, large chests of Bezos lucre passing through the hands of anointed intermediaries—not funds or professional advisors, but people directly selected by the kingmaker himself. It’s a novel and somewhat scary way to think about the future of the nonprofit world, especially since Bezos isn’t the only mega-billionaire with endless funds on hand and a reputation to salvage.

And if bolstering his reputation is a primary object of Bezos’ philanthropy, as this recent giving suggests, he’s likely going to have a hard time of it. As massive as the numbers are in and of themselves, these awards represent just a thousandth of his wealth, which he accumulated while contributing only a relative pittance to the public coffers. As far as apex donors go, Bezos’ ex-wife has been far more successful at deploying charity to reputational effect. And Scott has taken a far more pointed stance on the questions of structural inequality that come along with billionaire giving.

Of course, Bezos’ refusal to take a pointed stance in his giving is a stance itself. With this embrace of “civility,” he embraces the status quo, and it’s a status quo he’s done phenomenally well by, all talk of disruption aside.

In a telling moment of tone deafness, Bezos began his remarks at the press conference by thanking every Amazon employee and customer for paying the tab on his spaceflight, a venture many critics have panned as a personal ego trip. Drawing light laughter from the audience, the remark was a civil gloss on a structurally uncivil reality.

As gratifying as it is to finally see Bezos moving large sums of money toward nonprofit work, it’s unlikely his giving will acknowledge or come to terms with the structural inequities that enabled his wealth anytime soon.