The Changing Climate of Charitable Giving

By: Sasha Agpiev

Under typical circumstances, one would think that a multi-billion dollar donation to help fight climate change would receive universal praise. However, recent charity scandals tied back to wealthy figures combined with a growing confusion over how charities handle their funds has made many skeptical of Jeff Bezos’s new Earth Fund. 

This past decade, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos grew his fortune by over $100 billion. That adds up to an income of around $10 billion a year, or about 40,000 times the annual minimum wage in New York City. His company owns more than 10% of the entire North American e-commerce space, and the Amazon webstore ranks among the most visited websites on the internet. For these achievements, some revere him as one of the greatest businessmen of all time, while others critique the questionable business tactics and monopolistic tendencies hidden behind the staggering profits.

Whether in an effort to address the critics who question his ethics or out of a genuine desire to use his wealth to pave a healthier future for mankind, Jeff Bezos started off the new decade by launching the Bezos Earth Fund — a massive charitable initiative which pledges to donate over $10 billion for mitigating climate change. This was a bold claim with an even bolder figure attached to it, as $10 billion in donations would make Bezos the most significant donor to climate change-related causes in the United States, and would also technically make him one of the most charitable people in human history.

As is expected whenever a controversial billionaire chooses to do anything, skeptics promptly materialized from all sides to inquire upon the true intentions behind the Bezos Earth Fund. Just ten days after the fund was launched, NBC posted an article titled “Jeff Bezos’s Climate Change Philanthropy Has Quite a Few Strings Attached.” Other publications soon followed suit, with The Economist publishing a piece titled “Moonshots, From Literal to Metaphorical” while Yahoo Finance asked “Is Jeff Bezos’s $10 Billion Pledge as Generous as it Seems?” And though comment sections on internet forums rarely serve as hubs for insightful dialogue, a quick scroll through the comments on the Instagram post where Bezos announced his fund will paint a clear picture of what some people think of his pledge.

In many ways, the 21st century has evoked an interesting relationship between super-rich donors and donations. A series of scandals, tax-evading schemes, and fraudulent donations by wealthy elites in recent times have tainted the public’s perception of charitable giving, changing it from something considered to be widely positive and necessary to a lamentable combination of virtue signaling and capitalistic money hoarding. According to research from Populus Consultancy and the London School of Economics, public trust in charities and charitable giving has fallen from 6.3 to 5.7 on a scale of 10 (with 10 being the highest level of trust) since 2005, while BBB Wise Giving found that only one in five Americans highly trust charitable organizations and their largest donors. Though it’s difficult to compare these numbers to data from the 20th century, consensus reveals a clear downward trend in public trust. On the other hand, it’s not very difficult to pinpoint reasons for this abasement, as donations supposedly now serve as yet another vehicle for the wealthy to purchase social praise and status while shielding selfish intentions.

In the 2016 presidential election, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were publicly criticized during their campaigns for using personal charities to embezzle money or to evade taxes. According to a 2019 report from the NY attorney general, money donated to the Trump Foundation, gathered from the public and other charity organizations, was used by Trump to settle personal lawsuits and to purchase amenities for his resorts. The Clinton Foundation was widely accused of being an elaborate personal slush fund, with donations serving as a way to buy political influence. Other notable examples of wealthy figures using charities for self-advancement include the Sackler family using donations to hide their ties to the U.S. opioid epidemic, and the many celebrities tied to the recent college admissions scandal. Money given as charitable donations is tax-exempt to encourage philanthropy and altruism, but these examples show how those at the top have recently abused this system for financial gain.

Jeff Bezos’s Earth Fund, as many surmise, could be the culminating caricature of everything that has gone wrong with charitable giving, or as an archetype of the secretly corrupt charity. Since the fund is relatively new, people don’t yet know if Bezos has actually invested this money for direct personal gain, but journals like Vox say he could forego millions in taxes depending on how he structures his fund — a key detail which has yet to be publicly announced.

However, just as it is dangerous to blindly believe that all altruistic pledges are naturally for the greater good, it’s equally dangerous to dismiss acts of kindness just because they are tied to a wealthy businessperson. Bezos’s plans for the Earth Fund are actually quite clearly laid out, and many climate change activists like Maddie Stone praise his actions as not only legitimate but also hugely important for supporting a greater system of sustainable projects: “This kind of funding could play a role in bridging the ‘valley of death’ between development and commercialization of new green technologies.”

Bezos claims the majority of the Earth Fund’s money will go towards funding NGOs, research, and green initiatives in cities, as well as startups and small businesses that provide sustainable alternatives. This money will be allocated through grants that will begin rolling out this summer, and this is actually how a lot of charities use their funds to incite change. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a prime example of an organization that supports charity primarily through grants, but others such as Unicef, Smithsonian Institute, World Vision, etc. all follow this basic framework to an extent. The Earth Fund is particular as it is focusing uniquely on climate change, to the praise of directors at environmental research centers, like Philip Duffy, who claim that “Climate change was a tiny, tiny fraction of philanthropy and […] compared to its importance, it’s just way out of proportion, so this is a really, really welcome development.”

There are other reasons why such a donation might be needed most right now. This growing distrust in charities has had noticeable consequences. Lower-to middle-class people are now donating less, while public figures are losing incentive to donate given how skeptical people have become of their true intentions, as was evidenced by criticism directed at Jeff Bezos.  However, these small trifles distract from the real issue at hand, which, in the Earth Fund’s case, is funding research and projects to slow down climate change. It should be no surprise that climate change is causing harm, and NASA reports that if we don’t limit global temperature rise to two degrees celsius, our ecosystem will be irreversibly damaged. So it may be true that Bezos could gain huge tax cuts due to the sheer size of his donation, but that does not deduct from the value of his investment in efforts tackling this global issue. If the average household is donating less and less, and if the U.S. government continues to actively neglect the issue by pulling out of the Paris Agreement and minimizing oversight of coal and oil companies, then maybe it is up to billionaires like Jeff Bezos to fund this change.

The ongoing fight against Coronavirus has given us all a much-needed reminder of the importance of altruism. As hospitals get overwhelmed with patients, we are not only seeing the limitations of our health care systems but we are also seeing the true impact of charitable giving. The masks, ventilators, and hospital gowns donated to medical facilities during this time all speak to this. Ultimately, it’s not only important to suspend certain skepticism and reluctance toward the Earth Fund and other similar large scale initiatives led by the super-wealthy, but looking past the critiques might in fact be imperative.

Works Cited:

Image Source: from https://image.freepik.com/free-photo/human-hand-planting-money-success_101198-8.jpg

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