Well done, Jeff Bezos. The world’s richest man has announced his company will selflessly donate $690,000 (£531,000) to help Australia recover from devastating fires that have caused over 20 deaths and thousands of people to evacuate their homes.
The donation, which would be gargantuan for an average person, has to be taken in context: it’s the equivalent of 0.00000073 per cent of the value of his $938.1 billion company. More shockingly, it amounts to less than he made every five minutes in 2018, based on shares and personal wealth of around $114 billion, calculated by Forbes. “Our hearts go out to all Australians as they cope with these devastating bushfires,” Bezos said in an Instagram post this weekend.
As the estimated cost of the fires , which damaged over 8.4 million hectares of land, rises to over $4.4bn (£3.4bn), this amount could save the country 0.015 per cent of the bill.
Bezos’ pledge is less than the $1m (£770,000) apiece from singer Elton John (worth £320m), reality TV star Kylie Jenner ($1bn) and actor Chris Hemsworth (worth $76.4m). His donation was in the same ballpark as that of heavy metal band Metallica, which announced last week that it would give 750,000 Australian dollars to firefighting efforts in Australia.
Almost three years ago, Bezos asked people to give him ideas for new philanthropic ventures on Twitter. At the time, he said “I’m thinking I want much of my philanthropic activity to be helping people in the here and now – short term – at the intersection of urgent need and lasting impact.”
With the sheer scale of devastation including up to one billion animals killed, 2,000 homes destroyed and the potential for more inferno-style fires in the future, you’d think this crisis would be a perfect opportunity to demonstrate his solo philanthropic credentials. You’d be wrong.
So what does Bezos like to spend his money on instead? The billionaire is not exactly known for his philanthropy. He was included in the Philanthropy 50 list last year thanks to his former partner MacKenzie Bezos’ foundation the Bezos Fund, which gave $2bn (£1.54bn) to charity. But his wealth came under scrutiny soon after when his ex-wife signed up to the Giving Pledge, in which participants promise to give away half their wealth during their lifetimes or in their wills. Once she joined, he became the only one of the five richest people in America to not have signed up.
Until his Twitter shoutout in 2017, his ventures included investing $42m (£32m) to build a clock that is meant to tick for the next 10,000 years, and expedition business to find the engines of the Apollo 11 from the ocean floor.
The prospect of someone with Bezos’ wealth standing up for worthwhile projects is commendable – but the fact is, no big world-saving initiatives have publicly materialised out of this Twitter shout-out to match the fanfare of publicity.
In September 2019, he announced plans to invest in a one-time, $2bn “Day 1 Fund” for homeless families and preschool education – and promptly came under fire when it was pointed out that the bulk of the money was being given to organisations based in the cities that Amazon was planning to move to. He has repeatedly been accused of seeking praise for donations to charity while lobbying for laws that would block Amazon from paying higher taxes to increase government funding for public services.
More publicly, Bezos has gone through a costly divorce, and spent $80m (£61m) on three apartments in New York City to increase his property portfolio. The amount he spent on the Australia fires adds up to 0.8 per cent of the cost of those luxury condo apartments. Maybe we should all spare a thought for Bezos. It’s been a tough 12 months: he lost around $35bn (£26bn) from his high-profile divorce, and is still the richest man in the world – but not as rich as he was before. After all, he could have given nothing at all.
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