Is this $1M Grant a Philanthropic Clue from Amazon and Jeff Bezos?

Jeff Bezos” by Steve Jurvetson

October 13, 2017; Boston Globe

On Friday, Amazon announced a $1 million donation to St. Mary’s Center, a Dorchester, Massachusetts–based nonprofit that provides housing, job training, and other transitional services for homeless women, children, and families. The gift is the largest ever received by the nonprofit and, while the amount isn’t significant for a company valued at more than $450 billion, it could be a signal of how Amazon is starting to shape its philanthropic strategy.

Amazon has been slow to make its charitable mark, particularly in comparison to the highly public philanthropy of peer tech giants Microsoft, Facebook, and Salesforce. Indeed, in 2012 the Seattle Times called it a “no-show” in hometown philanthropy. While Amazon has since increased its giving to Seattle-based nonprofits and cultural institutions, it has yet to demonstrate a broader charitable strategy or intention. Similarly, its founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, one of the world’s richest people with a net worth of more than $83 billion dollars, has had significantly less philanthropic activity compared to some of his billionaire counterparts like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. To date, Bezos has donated one-tenth of one percent of his fortune to charity, versus his peers who have committed to giving away at least half of their wealth through The Giving Pledge.

That gap may now be closing. In June, Bezos sent a request to his 200K+ Twitter followers, asking for ideas on where to donate wealth to solve immediate, urgent needs “in the here and now.” He mentioned Mary’s Place, a Seattle-based homeless shelter with a similar mission to St. Mary’s Center, as an example of an organization that embodied the importance of addressing pressing needs versus waiting for the unknown results of long-term strategies. And while we have yet to see which direction he’ll ultimately take, it seems this philosophy may be translating to Amazon’s burgeoning approach to philanthropy.

Then again, it could just be smart business strategy. The announcement comes as Amazon is deciding on the location for its “second headquarters,” which promises to bring 50,000 jobs with salaries that could reach $100,000 to its ultimate home. Major cities, including Austin, San Francisco, and NYC, are vying for Amazon’s presence. Boston is thought to be a strong contender, and Amazon has already committed to nearly doubling its employee presence in the city from 1,000 to 1,900 along with a new Fort Point location.

While Boston builds support to welcome Amazon, it will no doubt seek to understand the philanthropic investment the company plans to make should it have a presence in the city—as it did when GE shifted its headquarters to Boston in 2016.—Danielle Holly