Bezos gives $100 million to Obama Foundation

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Bezos gives $100 million to Obama Foundation
Jeff Bezos at the National Press Club in Washington on Sept. 19, 2019. Former President Barack Obama’s private foundation announced on Monday, Nov. 22, 2021, that it had been promised a donation of $100 million from the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Emma Howells/The New York Times.

by Nicholas Kulish

NEW YORK, NY.- Former President Barack Obama’s private foundation announced Monday that it had been promised $100 million from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

The gift, the largest yet for the Obama Foundation, was one in a series of splashy donations in recent months by Bezos, one of the world’s richest people. Last week, Bezos announced $96.2 million in grants to groups working to end family homelessness.

Since stepping down as the CEO of Amazon in July, Bezos has significantly raised his profile as a philanthropist, in addition to traveling to space on a ship made by his rocket company, Blue Origin.

In return for the donation, Bezos asked that a plaza at the Obama Presidential Center be named for civil rights leader John Lewis, who died last year. The center, being built in Chicago, will include a library, a museum, an athletic center and more.

“Freedom fighters deserve a special place in the pantheon of heroes, and I can’t think of a more fitting person to honor with this gift than John Lewis, a great American leader and a man of extraordinary decency and courage,” Bezos said in a statement released by the Obama Foundation. “I’m thrilled to support President and Mrs. Obama and their foundation in its mission to train and inspire tomorrow’s leaders.”

It was neither Bezos’ biggest gift in recent months nor his first brush with Obama’s orbit thanks to his philanthropy. In September, Bezos, standing alongside John Kerry, Obama’s former secretary of state, pledged $1 billion through his Bezos Earth Fund for conservation, out of $10 billion he has promised to the fund.

Though Obama is out of office, he remains an important member of the Democratic Party establishment. The Obama Foundation’s previous president, Adewale Adeyemo, was a member of Obama’s National Security Council and is now the Department of the Treasury deputy secretary.

The Obama Foundation had been reaching out to administration alumni as part of its fundraising efforts. Jay Carney, a former press secretary for Obama who is now Amazon’s top lobbying and communications executive, first raised the possibility of a donation with Bezos, according to the foundation. Obama and Bezos spoke several times about the donation and it was Bezos’ idea to name the plaza for Lewis.

News of the gift was reported earlier by the online media company Puck.

“We intend to use Jeff’s gift to help support all of our programs,” said Valerie Jarrett, a former senior adviser to Obama who is now CEO of the foundation. “It will certainly pay for the plaza, and we’ll have funds also available for our endowment, which will allow the programs to go on in perpetuity.”

The foundation has a global leaders program with fellows in Asia, Europe and Africa, as well as programs aimed at addressing the opportunity gaps for girls and young men of color in the United States.

In 2020, the foundation received $171 million in contributions and grants and ended the year with $564 million in total assets, according to its most recent tax filing. Construction began on the center in August and the formal groundbreaking ceremony was held in September, and the foundation has raised enough money to pay for it.

Bezos has faced some criticism in recent years over the perceived slow pace of his giving in contrast to his enormous wealth. Forbes pegged his net worth at about $207 billion Monday, second only to the $300 billion fortune of Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX.

In particular, Bezos’ gifts have at times looked small compared with the more than $8 billion in grants that his ex-wife, MacKenzie Scott, has announced in just 11 months. Scott has been praised not only for the size of her gifts but the way she has given the money, with few strings attached.

Unrestricted gifts, as they are known, give organizations far more flexibility than those tied to specific programs, which often leave nonprofits starved for funds essential to running their general operations. Bezos’ $100 million gift to the Obama Foundation was also unrestricted.

The donation was the same amount he gave in April 2020 to the food-bank network Feeding America for its COVID-19 response fund. At a news conference after his trip into space, Bezos announced that he had created a prize for “civility and courage” and was awarding $100 million each to CNN political commentator Van Jones and chef and restaurateur José Andrés to pass on to charitable causes of their choosing.

He also gave $200 million to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in a gift announced in July.

At least as far back as the robber baron era of the late 19th century, philanthropy has been both a means of using great wealth to help the less fortunate and a way for the extremely wealthy to burnish their reputations once they have finished their climbs to the top.

Bezos remains the executive chair of Amazon, which has been broadly criticized for its labor practices. Amazon settled charges earlier this year from the National Labor Relations Board that the company had illegally retaliated against two prominent internal critics. The company defeated a union drive at an Amazon warehouse outside Birmingham, Alabama, in August, prevailing in the largest and most viable labor threat in the company’s history, but faces the prospect of a new vote because of some of its tactics during the election.

Bezos created Amazon’s employment model of burning through its hourly workforce, which had roughly 150% annual turnover even before the pandemic, The New York Times reported earlier this year.

“President Obama is strongly supportive of unions, and appreciates the fact that Jeff is being philanthropic and helping not just us but many other organizations do what they couldn’t do but for his generosity,” Jarrett said.

Before Bezos’ gift, the largest donations to the foundation were three gifts of $50 million each from Mark Walter, the CEO of Guggenheim Partners; Glenn Hutchins, a founder of Silver Lake Partners; and Connie Ballmer, the philanthropist and wife of Steve Ballmer, the former Microsoft CEO. Hutchins and Ballmer also serve on the foundation’s board.

According to the foundation’s most recent tax filing, the museum “will document the history of President and Mrs. Obama and the Obama administration, frame these narratives in a broader historical context and with an emphasis on civic discourse, and connect these stories to the movements and milestones that have helped to shape the nation and the world over time.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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