MacKenzie Bezos, who recently became one of the richest people in the world by divorcing Jeff Bezos, has decided that she will do something that her ex-husband never did: give a considerable fraction of her income to philanthropic causes. The Amazon founder is not necessarily averse to altruism, but his contributions have always been a drop in the bucket of his vast fortune. MacKenzie, however, announced this week that she has signed the Giving Pledge, “a commitment by the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to dedicate the majority of their wealth to giving back.” Signatories include Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Warren Buffett.
In an open letter, MacKenzie Bezos wrote that she saw no benefit in hoarding her wealth, an estimated $36 billion in assets, for a later time. “In addition to whatever assets life has nurtured in me,” she said, “I have a disproportionate amount of money to share. My approach to philanthropy will continue to be thoughtful. It will take time and effort and care. But I won’t wait. And I will keep at it until the safe is empty.”
Jeff Bezos, who came out of the prenup-less divorce with three-quarters of his fortune, has not signed the pledge. Last year, Amazon was instrumental in killing a Seattle tax whose proceeds would have gone to the development of affordable housing. He has committed $2 billion (a lot in any regard but only 1.3 percent of his current net worth and one-ninth of what the Giving Pledge would require of MacKenzie) to his own Day One Fund supporting homeless families.
MacKenzie did not outline what causes she had planned to put her funds toward. According to the Guardian, “in the past she has supported marriage equality, action against homelessness, college scholarships for undocumented immigrants, as well as research on cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.”
The Giving Pledge, while a nice idea, is exactly what it claims to be: a pledge, as opposed to a contract or legal obligation. It lets ultrawealthy people appear exceedingly charitable before actually being charitable. I don’t mean to sound too negative; I just mean that there is a lot of wiggle room here, and that’s something to keep in mind.
Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, are on the Giving Pledge list, for instance. Their organization, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, styles itself as a charity and uses the language of charity despite the fact that it is a limited-liability corporation, shielded from the regulations that charities must adhere to. Unlike charities, the CZI can be for profit, lobby politicians, and make political donations, and it does not have to disclose executive pay.
Anyhow, I would love to have my skepticism proved wrong and see MacKenzie Bezos’s wealth go to worthy causes and not just toward creative accounting. Also, Jeff: Sign the pledge.