Power Players

Jeff Bezos makes a long-awaited commitment to donate his fortune, while MacKenzie Scott announces $2 billion in donations

Jeff Bezos attends at "The Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power" World Premiere in August, 2022.
Dave J Hogan | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos told CNN on Monday that he plans to give away the majority of his $119.5 billion fortune in his lifetime, saying that "it's really hard" to give away large sums of money in effective ways.

"The hard part is figuring out how to do it in a levered way," he said. "Building Amazon was not easy. It took a lot of hard work, a bunch of very smart teammates, hard-working teammates, and I'm finding... that charity, philanthropy, is very similar."

"There are a bunch of ways that I think you could do ineffective things, too," he added. "So you have to think about it carefully and you have to have brilliant people on the team."

Meanwhile, on the same day, his ex-wife MacKenzie Scott published a Medium blog post, announcing that she'd given away nearly $2 billion over the last seven months.

Bezos, who is the fourth-richest person in the world according to Forbes, isn't the only billionaire with broad philanthropic plans. More than 230 others, including Scott, have signed the Giving Pledge, promising to do the same with their wealth.

Notably, despite his announcement earlier this week, Bezos hasn't signed the Giving Pledge. A spokesperson for Bezos declined CNBC Make It's request for comment.

Scott made that commitment in 2019, signing the Giving Pledge the same year the couple divorced and she received roughly $36 billion in Amazon shares. In her post on Monday, she noted her strategy: Give money to credible organizations, then step back and let them decide what to do with the funds.

"I needn't ask those I care about what to say to them, or what to do for them," Scott, who has a net worth of $28.2 billion, wrote. "I can share what I have with them to stand behind them as they speak and act for themselves."

A notable contrast

The contrast between Bezos and Scott exists beyond Monday's statements. Last month, Forbes reported Scott had donated $12.8 billion in just over two years, while Bezos had donated $2.4 billion to philanthropic causes throughout his life.

Bezos' reluctance to join the pledge has been criticized. Meanwhile, Scott's giving strategy, which spans more than 1,500 organizations, is hailed by nonprofit and philanthropy experts.

"MacKenzie Scott is the most exemplary philanthropist in the country now," Benjamin Soskis, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute's Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy, told CNBC Make It on Wednesday. "She has developed a model which is incredibly powerful and has gained more acclaim than any major mega-donor."

It might be easier for Scott, who still held nearly 15 million Amazon shares at the start of 2022, to give her fortune away.

Bezos, who stepped down as CEO in 2021, is still the active chairman and owns just under 10% of Amazon, according to Forbes. Giving away his wealth could directly impact the value of the company's shares and reduce his influence over the company he founded.

This might be why Bezos has started slowly, including giving his fortune away to other philanthropists.

Last week, Bezos and his current partner Lauren Sanchez awarded Dolly Parton the Bezos Courage and Civility Award, which came with $100 million to gift to charity and philanthropy groups of her choosing.

Another possibility: Bezos could be waiting for his fortune to increase in value before giving it away.

Last year, Warren Buffett announced that he'd given $41 billion to five foundations over 16 annual contributions. If he'd waited longer, that money could have been worth $100 billion, he added.

"Would society ultimately have benefitted more if I had waited longer to distribute the shares?" Buffett wrote. "My first wife ... favored giving away large sums when we were young — when our net worth was a tiny fraction of its eventual size. I held out for later ... It was only after my wife's death that I, at 75, stepped on the accelerator."

Wealthy individuals earn more tax breaks by donating money earlier in their lives, a point often raised by critics.

The idea of growing interest can also work both ways: If you donate money to charity now, the funds can produce compounding returns and other benefits for nonprofits and people they help sooner.

Buffett and Bill Gates are the founding members of the Giving Pledge, which they launched in 2010. Other billionaires who have signed it include Melinda French Gates, Michael Bloomberg, Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk.

This article has been updated to provide additional context about Bezos' interview with CNN.

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