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The Powerful Questions behind Jeff Bezos’ Philanthropy Tweet

In mid-June, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos shook things up – again. 

I’m not talking about Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods, although in many places that is a big deal.

I’m talking about Bezos’ tweet on June 15th, when he asked for ideas for his emerging philanthropy strategy.  Jeff said he spends most of his time working on ‘the long-term,’ but for philanthropy, he’s interested in the other end of the spectrum: the ‘right now.’

Jeff’s 140-character request gets at the heart of philanthropy.  How best can we create a happier and healthier society?  How do we balance support for urgent need with long-term solutions that attack root causes?

United Way works on both ends of this spectrum.  We support food kitchens, homeless shelters and health clinics.  We also bring community, business and government leaders together to examine long-term problems, like the jobs-skills divide, and find solutions that could take years to bear fruit.  Yet when they do, they create widespread positive change.

In response to Jeff’s tweet, I asked him to consider long-term needs in his philanthropy strategy.  One-hundred forty characters didn’t fully capture what I wanted to say, so I followed up with a letter.

In my letter, I told Jeff that he’s the kind of disrupting force that philanthropy needs.  He didn’t build Amazon into one of the world’s most powerful, game-changing companies without thinking about how technology would affect our lives or how we prefer to consume.  That’s why I think he should embrace a similar way of thinking when it comes to helping people lead better lives.

I asked Jeff, who started Amazon when the internet was in its infancy and now runs a revolutionary aerospace company, to ponder questions like these:

  • What systems can we change to help millions of people, not hundreds?
  • What partners can we cultivate to develop new technologies that allow people to do things like learn more – and learn faster?
  • What barriers can we break that keep us from coming together to solve our most difficult challenges?

In other words, I’m hoping Jeff is willing to disrupt philanthropy for the better.  Of course, he should address the many immediate needs facing our society – and his tweet received some great responses to that effect – but I’m hoping he’ll also apply his talents and experiences in creative, long-term ways. 

I’m hopeful that Jeff will reply and ask how we can work together.  But I also want to know what you think.  How should non-profits and philanthropists balance short- and long-term needs?  How can philanthropy be ‘disrupted’ for the better?  How could technology play a part?

Leave your thoughts below!