The Ultra Rich Won’t Drive Innovative Philanthropy — Trusting Community Will

Image: Ted S. Warren / AP

In an announcement that resembled a NBA free agent mulling over prospective teams, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos took to twitter to inform the world that he is very nearly ready to make his major philanthropic debut. After a year of consideration, Bezos stated, “I have settled on two areas that I’m very excited about,” adding that he would reveal the areas of interest before the end of the summer.

It goes without saying that when the world’s richest man decides to devote a fraction of his wealth to social good, the philanthropic community takes notice. Bezos has become a hot topic in funding circles, with many speculating on where he will focus his efforts and debating the merits of the likeliest scenarios. In part, those working in or around philanthropy are wise to pay heed to the emergence of a major funder, especially one that aims to make a public splash. However, there are those whose interest in this matter has devolved into uninhibited enthusiasm and misplaced hope, helping to drive a narrative that Bezos has the capacity and will to significantly change philanthropy or even the world.

Undoubtedly, Bezos’ reputation for innovating and succeeding across industries has excited many who hope he will apply that same entrepreneurial spirit to his philanthropic push. However, when you consider Bezos in the context of his business practices and broader history, it seems unlikely that he will establish himself as the change agent some are hoping for. As Bezos announced his intention to give back a year ago, reports have continued to emerge detailing the appalling work conditions and staggering low wages effecting Amazon workers. Similarly, we have learned of the labor-camp conditions at the Hengyang Foxconn factory, responsible for the production of Amazon’s Kindle, Echo Dots and tablets. Rather than speculating on what Bezos can accomplish through philanthropy, we should ask whether he might achieve greater good by committing to reform Amazon’s harmful corporate practices.

Perhaps the positive reception Bezos has enjoyed regarding his philanthropic push, simply reflects our greater society’s tendency to venerate the rich and famous. On the other hand, maybe we are just desperate to believe that during these tumultuous times, someone will emerge who is willing to put their power and influence to good use. However, philanthropy as an institution can ill afford to mistake Bezos for anything more than what his actions (and inaction) illustrate.

Fortunately, hope remains — if philanthropy wants to embrace genuine innovation while maximizing impact, we should reconsider who is best equipped to drive cutting-edge philanthropy. While the ultra rich play the integral role of financiers in philanthropy, arguably, it is the only role they should assume. Whether one has accumulated or inherited wealth, capital does not render special insight into our society’s most pressing issues, nor can it purchase solutions. To be clear, this is not a condemnation of Bezos and his contemporaries, nor is this a denial of their respective skills and intrinsic value to our industry. Rather, this is a rebuke of top-down philanthropy and the false notion that the ultra rich are equipped to drive effective, equitable and inclusive social change.

Most philanthropic organizations and major foundations have evolved to embrace this principle. By employing some of the world’s greatest minds and subject matter experts, organizations have acknowledged that there are people who are better equipped to lead philanthropy than the holders of wealth. This reliance on formal experts has become a cornerstone of the industry and a key feature differentiating philanthropy from simple charity. However, in our efforts to professionalize philanthropy, we have often failed to consider what the full spectrum of expertise looks like. While credentialed and formally educated non-profit professionals have become the defacto advisors and strategists in philanthropy, we have neglected to engage and utilize the expertise of the communities we purport to serve. Astonishingly, the informal experts, who live, eat, sleep and breathe these issues, are all too often left out of the decision-making process.

If philanthropy is looking for the next big initiative — if we are looking for innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing issues — we need look no further than the communities that are most affected by those issues. It is time to embrace a vision of philanthropy that is community driven, community informed and community led. It is time for funders to empower, equip, and champion distressed communities as experts and leaders, rather than subjecting them to the latest round of strategically aligned rescue attempts.

Inevitably, Bezos will earn his philanthropist stripes, joining the ranks of historic Rockefeller and Ford, alongside contemporaries, such as Gates and Zuckerberg. Bezos will succeed, because he has built an empire on succeeding against the odds, and there is no reason to doubt that he is any less committed to making his mark on philanthropy. One can only hope that Bezos’ vision of success entails more than building a living monument to his altruism. Distressed communities across the globe deserve more than yet another foundation bearing the name and banner of the well-intentioned rich. They deserve to be heard and it is our job as the executives, advisors and administrators that comprise philanthropy, to uplift and champion their voices.