Power Players

Feeding America CEO: What it's like to get $100 million donation from Jeff Bezos

Claire Babineaux-Fontenot (third from the right), the CEO of Feeding America, at the food bank in San Antonio, Texas.
Photo courtesy Feeding America

To Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, $100 million is pocket change. (It's roughly .07% of his $148.6 billion fortune, which is the equivalent of 7 cents out of a $100 bill).

But to Feeding America, the $100 million donation Bezos announced in April was the largest single gift in the hunger relief non-profit's history.

So what is it like to get a nine-figure donation from the richest person in the world? Just ask Feeding America CEO Claire Babineaux-Fontenot.

First "I received an email from someone who said that they'd like to talk," Babineaux-Fontenot, tells CNBC Make It. The email was from someone who works very closely with Bezos, Babineaux-Fontenot says, but she declines to name who.

When the two spoke on the phone, the associate said that Bezos understood the pandemic was having "significant implications on hunger in the country and that he really wanted to be helpful," Banineaux-Fontenot says.

"We proceeded to have a conversation about how he wanted to help and have an honest discussion about whether or not Feeding America and our network was well positioned to be able to provide for the help," she says.

After that preliminary conversation, Babineaux-Fontenot felt optimistic.

She was alone in her home office in the Dallas suburbs (the Feeding America team has been working from home since mid-March) and remembers thinking, "Oh my goodness, I think he intends to make the type of contribution that can really be transformational for the work going on right now among members of our network, and then always, and I mean always, for people facing hunger."

Babineaux-Fontenot contacted leaders in Feeding America's network "that same night" to ensure that the organization could responsibly manage such a gift. 

"We got to the point where we all collectively felt that that we could in fact" deliver on Bezos' wish, "which was to get food into communities in a short window of time, as quickly as possible, to get food into communities so that people could be fed," she says.

Though Babineaux-Fontenot declined to give any other details regarding Bezos' donation, Bezos himself gave some insight into how he thinks about philanthropy in 2017 while soliciting ideas from the public.

"I'm thinking about a philanthropy strategy that is the opposite of how I mostly spend my time [with Amazon] — working on the long-term," Bezos wrote in a tweet. "For my philanthropy, I find I'm drawn to the other end of the spectrum: the right now."

Bezos philanthropy tweet

(Bezos had long been criticized for a lack of philanthropy in relation to the scope of his wealth, but after the call for ideas started the $2 billion Day One Fund in 2018 and he announced a $10 billion donation to support climate change relief in February.)

Though Amazon had no further comment, feeding the hungry, certainly, is a "right now" problem.

Before the pandemic, Feeding America was already providing meals to more than 40 million people each year through its network of 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries and meal programs. (As a charity, Feeding America scores an overall 94.28 out of 100, according to Charitynavigator.org, and it gets particularly high marks — 97 out of 100 — for accountability and transparency.)

Then when the coronavirus pandemic hit and crippled the labor market, "it's fair to say that we struggled to keep up with the demand," Babineaux-Fontenot says. 

"We had a precipitous increase in demand [for food donations] while at the same time having a precipitous decrease in supply," she says. That was compounded by "a meaningful decrease in our workforce that would normally" distribute the food as well as "a challenge around the delivery model" due to social distancing requirements.

"We had some food banks saying that if they didn't get help in the next two to four weeks, they were not going to be able to continue, so that was in the back of my mind" when discussing the donation, Babineaux-Fontenot says.

"The stakes are so high in what we do."

By late March, according to an internal Feeding America survey, 41% of its food banks reported a critical funding shortfall.

Then came Bezos' donation, which was announced publicly April 2. 

Within days of the money being deposited, Feeding America had dispersed it among all the food banks within its network, and "within weeks" it was being used in a variety of ways, including to buy food and household items for those in need, to pay for fuel to drive pantry donations, to buy warehouse equipment and to buy protective equipment for staff, volunteers and those receiving food. 

Since then, things have improved. By May, only 7% of Feeding America's bood banks still had critical funding issues. (And on Friday, the federal government reported the unemployment rate has started to fall, but is still at an astonishing 13.3%.)

Through May 27, the total amount of money deployed by Feeding America as part of its coronavirus pandemic relief efforts was $169 million, according to a spokesperson. 

Another boon for Feeding America amid the pandemic has been the All In Challenge, a fundraising effort that has 483 celebrities and athletes from Mark Cuban to Tom Brady participating in auctions and sweepstakes to raise money for a number of hunger-relief organizations. As of Friday, the challenge has raised more than $56 million from more than 1 million individual donations. So far $40 million has been dispersed evenly among Feeding America, No Kid Hungry, Meals on Wheels and World Central Kitchen, according to a spokesperson for Fanatics, a sportswear retailer, which created the challenge.

All-In Challenge: Celebrities team up to fight hunger during pandemic
All-In Challenge: Celebrities team up to fight hunger during pandemic

Still, the $100 million donation from Bezos is historic for Feeding America.

"I'd like to believe that my relationships were helpful," says Babineaux-Fontenot, "but there's no way that gift would have happened if the Feeding America network was not what it is — and who it is — when the cameras are not there.... [I]f this network were not comprised of the people who have [supported] the brand and reputation, earned over decades, that gift would never have happened."

See also: 

Twitter billionaire Jack Dorsey on giving away his money: 'If someone is in pain, I am in pain'

What it was like to tell my kids I lost my job: 'Aren't you important' Mom?

Pope Francis: 'This may be the time to consider a universal basic wage'

In their own words: Food pantry volunteers
In their own words: Food pantry volunteers