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November 16, 2020; The Verge

Last week, Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man and Amazon’s founder and CEO, announced the first grant recipients of his $10 billion Earth Fund. The 16 groups that, together, will receive $791 million in funding, represent brand name environmental protection and advocacy groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund, National Resources Defense Council, and World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

“I’ve spent the past several months learning from a group of incredibly smart people who’ve made it their life’s work to fight climate change and its impact on communities around the world,” Bezos stated in the Instagram post that announced the grant. “I’m inspired by what they’re doing, and excited to help them scale. We can all protect Earth’s future by taking bold action now.”

That $10 billion fund is ten times higher than the current investment from private philanthropy, and rivals federal spending on climate change.

While the level of investment is certainly bold, the focus of it is not. The grantees reflect a conservative choice by the newly minted philanthropist, who is on his way to becoming the world’s first trillionaire but has taken a slow approach to philanthropy until just last year. The nature of his giving amplifies concerns related to the concentration of power and resources in the environmental movement. These brand-name nonprofits have had a strong voice in environmental advocacy and programming, but don’t represent the grassroots advocacy or BIPOC-led groups that are most proximate to the environmental justice issues that are resulting from the climate crisis. They also don’t represent groups that have been critical of Bezos, such as the Sunrise Movement, which tweeted a popular criticism of Amazon’s CEO in September.

A subset of the 16 organizations that were announced have poor track records on racial and gender equity, including the WWF, The Nature Conservancy, and the Union of Concerned Scientists. While Bezos is also funding a few smaller organizations that are BIPOC-led and focused on racial equity, their numbers and funding are dwarfed by the larger players.

NPQ has written extensively on the ways in which the current state of philanthropy—where wealthy donors, often far removed from the issues they’re funding decide what social solutions to fuel—undermines our democracy and can dull the teeth of social change movements.

Bezos’ gift is the latest, and possibly the largest, example of the challenges with our current philanthropic environment, and could further power the whiteness and corporate-friendliness of the environmental movement.

Amazon, which has been sharply criticized for its carbon emissions and contribution to climate change, made a pledge to be carbon neutral by 2040. Subsequently, a component of Bezos’s philanthropy has focused on the proliferation of electric vehicles, which will help Amazon with that ambitious goal.

The connection between CEO philanthropy and business practice is generally a good thing. Still, it underscores that Bezos, in many ways, is using his philanthropy to ameliorate the challenges his business creates. Investments in large, often corporate-sponsored, environmental nonprofits might ultimately keep the movement from taking the private sector to task for its role in climate change.

A group of activist Amazon employees who dub themselves Amazon Employees for Climate Justice put it simply: “We applaud Jeff Bezos’s philanthropy, but one hand cannot give what the other is taking away.”—Danielle Holly