Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos surpassed Microsoft founder Bill Gates to become the world’s richest person today for a brief period, with a net worth of $90.9 billion, thanks in large part to Amazon’s recent acquisition of Whole Foods. The honor lasted only a few hours, as Amazon’s stock price fluctuated Thursday ahead of the company dropping its earnings report, which revealed the company is doing well, but maybe not quite as well as analysts had predicted. Ultimately, Bezos ended the day with a net worth of $89.8 billion to Gates’ $90.8 billion, according to Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index. But with Bezos’ empire growing and Gates increasingly focused on giving his wealth away, it’s all but inevitable that Bezos will come out on top. Indeed, though Bezos’ wealth may be skyrocketing, he lags far behind his tech billionaire brethren in terms of philanthropy.
As Gates showed, the person at the top of capitalism’s leaderboard can set the tone for how wealth should be used responsibly. Gates worked hard to send the message that it’s the responsibility of the world’s richest to give back. Now, as Bezos is poised to assume the mantle of the world’s wealthiest, pressure is mounting on Bezos to spend that money on something other than his business empire.
Techies, including Gates and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, have topped the Chronicle of Philanthropy‘s list of the top 50 philanthropists in the country, but Bezos has never even appeared on the list. Nor has he signed the so-called “giving pledge,” in which billionaires including Warren Buffett, Michael Bloomberg, Gates, Zuckerberg, and dozens more commit to give away half of their wealth to philanthropic or charitable causes. His parents, Jackie and Mike Bezos, run the Bezos Family Foundation, and while their children, including Jeff, sit on the board, the foundation is funded primarily by Jackie and Mike’s own Amazon stock.
And while billionaires like Peter Thiel and Elon Musk have poured their fortunes into politics, Bezos has donated sparingly. He’s funded Amazon’s own bipartisan corporate PAC and repeatedly backed Washington Democratic Senator Patty Murray’s campaigns, and in 2015 he backed Republican House Representative Jason Chaffetz’s re-election effort, during which he defeated Stephen Tryon, a former executive of—wait for it—Amazon’s long-time rival Overstock.com.
This absence of activism has earned Bezos a reputation for being either directionless or disinterested in philanthropy. Earlier this month, he attempted to answer those accusations with a tweet asking his followers how he should spend his money. “I’m thinking I want much of my philanthropic activity to be helping people in the here and now—short term—at the intersection of urgent need and lasting impact,” Bezos tweeted.
“Everybody got really excited,” says Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy. “They thought this must be the sign he’s about to get more seriously involved in philanthropy. His grants so far have been relatively small compared to his wealth.”
Back in May, Bezos donated $1 million to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press—a philanthropic interest in keeping with his business interests; Bezos owns The Washington Post. In March, his family foundation gave $35 million to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Institute. He donated $10 million for an innovation center at Seattle’s Museum of History & Industry. Amazon recently committed to house a homeless shelter, called Mary’s Place, inside one of its new Seattle office buildings, complete with a $1 million grant from Bezos. All that helps, although it’s also mostly circumscribed to the area around Amazon’s Seattle headquarters. And compared to the $45 billion investment Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan made in their Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, or the $30 billion or so Gates reportedly donated to The Gates Foundation, it starts to look quite small.
Bezos has, instead, reserved his big money for for-profit endeavors, spending $250 million to acquire the Post and, arguably, bring it back to life. He’s also launched an aerospace company called Blue Origin that he frames as an humanitarian endeavor to save humanity from an endangered planet.
This isn’t altogether unusual for tech philanthropists, Palmer says. “A lot of the new tech money says philanthropy isn’t the only way to solve societal problems.”
It’s also possible that Bezos has chosen to give anonymously, and that his true philanthropy may merely be hidden. Even so, members of the philanthropic community say that it’s critical for Bezos to take a more public-facing approach to giving. Fame, after all, can be almost as powerful as fortune.
“Philanthropy can be incredibly powerful and exciting when it’s money plus using your voice and your network,” says Gabrielle Fitzgerald, CEO of the non-profit Panorama, who spent 10 years working at the Gates Foundation.
As Fitzgerald notes, when Gates decided to prioritize polio eradication, he not only put money behind it, but convened other philanthropists including Bloomberg, as well as foreign governments to tackle the disease. And when he let mosquitoes loose inside the arena during a TED talk, he started a conversation about malaria, a cause he was already fighting with funding.
Yes, there would have been some poetry if Bezos had nabbed the title of world’s richest man on the day his company posted big fat profits from its second-quarter earnings. By the end of the day, though, it was clear neither outcome was meant to be. After the market closed Thursday, Amazon dropped its earnings report, saying revenue rose 25 percent to $38 billion—narrowly beating the $37.18 billion in total sales Wall Street had predicted. The company also reported that it earned 40 cents per share in Q2 of 2017, much lower than the $1.42 earnings per share that analysts had expected, as Amazon poured money into international expansion and video content. (Shares dipped in after-hours trading. Amazon declined to comment on Bezos’ brief status as world’s richest man.)
Still, we’ve seen this “growth before profits” strategy play out from Amazon before. It’s all but likely that before long, Amazon will be reaping the benefits of its latest investments. And Bezos will be right there, poised to officially take the crown of world’s richest person from Gates.