Amazon founder Bezos gives $137m to Obama Foundation

Banking & Finance

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) – Former US president Barack Obama’s private foundation announced on Monday (Nov 22) that it had been promised US$100 million (S$137 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 Mr Bezos, one of the world’s richest people. Last week, Mr Bezos announced US$96.2 million in grants to groups working to end family homelessness.

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

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

“Freedom fighters deserve a special place in the pantheon of heroes, and I can’t think of a more fitting person to honour with this gift than John Lewis, a great American leader and a man of extraordinary decency and courage,” Mr Bezos said in a statement released by the Obama Foundation.

“I’m thrilled to support… (the) foundation in its mission to train and inspire tomorrow’s leaders,” he said.

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

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

“We intend to use Jeff’s gift to help support all of our programmes,” said Ms Valerie Jarrett, a former senior adviser to Mr 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 programmes to go on in perpetuity.”

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

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

Mr 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 US$207 billion, second only to the US$300 billion fortune of Tesla CEO Elon Musk.

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

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

The donation was the same amount he gave in April 2020 to food bank network Feeding America for its Covid-19 response fund.

At a news conference after his trip into space, Mr Bezos announced that he had created a prize for “civility and courage” and was awarding US$100 million each to CNN political commentator Van Jones and chef and restaurateur Jose Andres to pass on to charitable causes of their choosing.

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