- David Ryder/Getty Images
- Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is now far ahead Bill Gates as the world’s richest person.
- With a net worth of $105 billion, Bezos is likely to retain the title for the foreseeable future, and it could upend how billionaires view charity.
- Unlike Bill Gates, who has focused on long-term projects, Bezos could focus more on the short-term.
Jeff Bezos was just named the top billionaire on the Forbes annual list, with a net worth of $112 billion. This makes him far and away the world’s richest person.
Bezos displaced Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates, whose net worth is $90 billion, according to Forbes. The new distinction could fuel Bezos’s interest in furthering human progress through for-profit companies – efforts that could shift how the world’s wealthiest think about philanthropy.
“I think his activities to date suggest he looks at some of his business investments as opportunities to advance social change,” Jane Wales, CEO of the Global Philanthropy Forum, previously told Business Insider.
Amazon’s agreement to buy Whole Foods, announced in June of 2017, initially sent the online retailer’s stock skyrocketing. It also increased Bezos’ net worth by $1.8 billion, to $84.6 billion. At the time, that was $5 billion behind Gates. His net worth briefly eclipsed Gates’ in July of that year, after the second-quarter earnings were released.
Bezos’ plan for business investments to double as forms of social change was evident in his buying The Washington Post in 2013. He quickly turned it into a lean, digital journalism powerhouse – something other large news organizations have struggled to do. Similarly, the Whole Foods purchase may hint at Bezos’ desire to reinvent the food industry’s supply chain. (At the very least, he has the opportunity to do so.)
Wales says Bezos’ business plays offer a window into how he could cement his status as one of the most influential players in the philanthropy world, independent of the Bezos Family Foundation that’s run by his parents. In fact, Bezos may already be looking to take on more projects. Recently, he asked his nearly 300,000 Twitter followers for ways to generate a lasting impact with quick, decisive action.
“I’m thinking about a philanthropy strategy that is the opposite of how I mostly spend my time – working on the long term,” Bezos wrote. “For philanthropy, I find I’m drawn to the opposite end of the spectrum: the right now.”
Request for ideas… pic.twitter.com/j6D68mhseL
— Jeff Bezos (@JeffBezos) June 15, 2017
That approach could encourage more short-term solutions to problems typically thought of as systemic, Wales said, and that could be a good thing. She pointed to the ongoing migrant crisis as one example.
“That requires action now. Governments are overwhelmed, and policy is not solving it,” Wales said. “The Bezos Family Foundation, which is mostly long-term in its thinking, is also giving to the International Rescue Committee, to Save the Children, to CARE – to organizations that address the immediate as well as the long term.”
- Danny Moloshok/Reuters
Other billionaires, on the other hand, are sticking to big-picture work. Bill and Melinda Gates are trying to end polio once and for all, and Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan are trying to eradicate disease and improve education.
But Bezos is new to the philanthropy world – he isn’t involved with his parents’ foundation – and people just starting out in the field often take a year or two to get the lay of the land and form a strategy. Judging by Bezos’ past business moves, his style of philanthropy might involve private investments in startups looking to do social good, or acquisitions of other companies.
- Rick Wilking/Reuters
Not everyone in the philanthropy community is optimistic about Bezos’ influence, however.
Larry Brilliant, the acting chairman of the Skoll Global Threats Fund, criticized Bezos’ crowdsourcing approach.
“The denominator of ideas you will get in, the vast majority of ideas which are not good, not viable, will flood this process,” Brilliant told The New York Times in June.
And in an open letter to Bezos in Forbes, the philanthropy adviser Jake Hayman took issue with the notion that focusing on short-term goals can yield lasting impact.
“It’s the business equivalent of looking for ‘safe, proven investments’ with imminent 10-fold returns,” Hayman wrote. “It doesn’t happen.”
Bezos is not participating in The Giving Pledge, a pact among 16 billionaires (including Warren Buffett and Zuckerberg) to give away at least half of their fortunes before they die. But Wales contends that Bezos still can send a strong signal to wealthy Silicon Valley types that philanthropy matters.
“He is young, he is in the midst of his career, and he’s already seen as bold,” she said. “What that tweet says to me is: ‘I do not want to ignore today’s problems.'”