Different Paths to a Better World

Two Roads Diverged in a Wood,” Aia Fernandez

May 1, 2018; Fox 11 WLUK (Green Bay, Wisconsin) and GeekWire

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and the estate of David and Rita Nelson face the challenge of how to use their great wealth. Their very different approaches can tell us about the changing face of philanthropy and give the nonprofit community much to ponder. They share the desire to use their wealth to make large investments which they think will make a difference. Yet their understandings of what is important and what deserves their support differ widely.

Earlier this week, the Community Foundation of the Fox Valley Region announced they had received a $100 million donation from the estate of David and Rita Nelson, dedicated to supporting projects and services in their northern Wisconsin community. This follows a traditional pattern of charitable giving and reliance on community organizations.

In its press release announcing the gift, Curt Detjen, the Foundation’s president, said:

This is the most generous gift ever for our region, and it is a game-changer. It will be a catalyst for addressing community needs today, but also for investing in exciting opportunities for future generations.

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At more than $100 million, the gift is among the largest in Wisconsin’s history and large enough to have ranked among the top 20 gifts nationally…The bequest is by far the largest gift to the Community Foundation in its 32-year history.

According to Fox 11 News, “The money will be used to benefit the couple’s interests including area parks, recreation, education and historic preservation.” According to Detjen, “This gift will forever change the face of Northeast Wisconsin and will help us to improve riverwalks and historical properties and send kids to school and get an education, so many different ways this gift will be transformational for all people here in this community.”

Not only did the Nelsons see charity as both local and part of a lifelong commitment to their community, they trusted the community’s leadership to know best how to use the gift over time. Their fund set a general purpose but did not micromanage the specific way that objective would be realized over time, trusting that the structure of a community foundation to provide oversight to their endowment was best.

This perhaps-old-fashioned approach to philanthropy differs greatly from how Jeff Bezos has chosen to use his wealth. He desires to fulfill his personal vision of the future; charitable giving is not as critical as making an impact on problems he has focused upon.

For Bezos, humanity is under threat from environmental degradation, and creating a path to moving humans beyond our planet is essential. Rather than focus philanthropy, he has chosen to invest in his space venture company, Blue Origin. In recent remarks reported by GeekWire, he said,

The only way that I can see to deploy this much financial resource is by converting my Amazon winnings into space travel, that is basically it. Blue Origin is expensive enough to be able to use that fortune. I am liquidating about $1 billion a year of Amazon stock to fund Blue Origin. And I plan to continue to do that for a long time.

Bezos and his wife have given significantly to nonprofit organizations in Amazon’s home community of Seattle, but their gifts pale in comparison to his ongoing commitment to Blue Origin. (He has not chosen, for example, to take the Giving Pledge and commit the bulk of his wealth to charitable purposes.) While his particular mix of purpose-driven investing and charitable giving isn’t much like other mega-donors of his generation, his personalized approach is pretty similar. Unlike the Nelsons, who relied on a traditional community-based framework for direction to ensure some measure of community input, Bezos sees his wealth as best directed by his own vision, with no outside guidance necessary.

Bill Gates has used the vehicle of a charitable foundation for the use of his great wealth, and Mark Zuckerberg has chosen to establish an LLC. With different approaches, their activities reflect a similar focus on personal direction with little significant community input and accountability.

If Mr. Bezos and his peers represent the future, that future presents a challenge to the nonprofit community. Whether the brashness and entrepreneurial fearlessness the innovators bring to their “charity” will give us breakthrough impact that the traditional structure, as invested in by the Nelsons, cannot, remains to be seen.—Martin Levine