Less than two months after finalizing her divorce from the world’s richest person, MacKenzie Bezos has indicated that she intends to be a far more generous philanthropist than her husband has been.
MacKenzie Bezos announced in a letter on Tuesday that she had signed the Giving Pledge, a commitment to give half of her $35 billion in assets, or at least $17 billion, to charity over her lifetime or in her will.
Despite facing criticism for being the world’s richest man but having donated only a tiny fraction of his wealth, Bezos’s ex-husband, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, has for years conspicuously declined to sign on.
The Giving Pledge is an open invitation for billionaires, or those who would be if not for their giving, to publicly dedicate the majority of their wealth to philanthropy. It is inspired by the example set by millions of people at all income levels who give generously—and often at a great personal sacrifice—to make the world better. Envisioned as a multi-generational effort, the Giving Pledge aims over time to help shift the social norms of philanthropy toward giving more, giving sooner, and giving smarter.
Nine years ago, the Giving Pledge and its chief ambassadors, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, were heralded as today’s Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, at the vanguard of a new movement by American billionaires to remake global philanthropy by encouraging earlier, bigger, and more public giving.
Tech billionaires, in particular, have had to begin playing defense on their philanthropic efforts—especially since some see these gifts as PR cover for their capitalist misdeeds. A headline-capturing, vague philanthropic commitment like the Giving Pledge is particularly susceptible to scrutiny because it is only a promise, with plenty of wiggle room and zero accountability. That’s especially true in Silicon Valley, where some rival groups to the Giving Pledge are increasingly gaining traction.
While the Giving Pledge can claim to be ultimately responsible for more than $500 billion in commitments, other philanthropic efforts like Founders Pledge—focused on earlier-stage tech entrepreneurs—and Pledge 1%, focused on corporate giving, are hoping to replicate and disrupt the Giving Pledge, forcing it to compete for the mindshare of today’s tech community.
Joining MacKenzie in signing the pledge on Tuesday were Twilio founder Jeff Lawson and his wife Erica; venture capitalist Chris Sacca and his wife Crystal; and Brian Acton, the WhatsApp founder who now encourages people to delete Facebook after selling it his company for $19 billion, along with his wife Tegan.
These new additions bring the total number of Giving Pledge signers to more than 200 people—which sounds like a lot until you realize that’s only about 7 percent of the world’s billionaires. Many of the world’s wealthiest people who call Silicon Valley home, such as Sergey Brin and Larry Page, have not signed. Jeff Bezos hasn’t signed it either, although he’s not immune to pressure to become more philanthropic.
After becoming the world’s richest man in 2018, Bezos announced last year that he would commit $2 billion to early education and anti-homelessness programs. As Amazon faces high-stakes questions about its power and threats of governmental regulation, Bezos seemingly realized he could no longer afford to entirely ignore his critics.
Jeff Bezos applauded his former wife’s move on Twitter Tuesday morning, writing, “MacKenzie is going to be amazing and thoughtful and effective at philanthropy, and I’m proud of her. Her letter is so beautiful. Go get ’em MacKenzie.” MacKenzie Bezos received about 4% of Amazon’s outstanding stock under her divorce agreement and is worth an estimated $35 billion. Her ex-husband Jeff is the world’s wealthiest man with a current estimated net worth of about $131 billion.
The Bezoses had nine years to sign the Giving Pledge and declined to do so over and over again. As soon as MacKenzie Bezos was in charge of her personal fortune, she immediately signed the document. That obviously raises questions about whether she disagreed with her husband about their philanthropic strategy.
In a letter announcing her pledge, MacKenzie Bezos, who has published several novels, drew a parallel between writing and philanthropy, quoting a passage by writer Annie Dillard about how authors shouldn’t hoard their best ideas for the end of their books.
“My approach to philanthropy will continue to be thoughtful,” she wrote. “It will take time and effort and care. But I won’t wait. And I will keep at it until the safe is empty.” The letter didn’t offer many specifics, so how exactly MacKenzie Bezos, a novelist, will fulfill her philanthropic commitment has yet to be seen.
She has said as part of the divorce process that she and Jeff Bezos would continue their joint philanthropic work on homelessness and early education. She has focused most of her public attention on anti-bullying efforts, which could perhaps become a major focus of her philanthropic work.
The number of female billionaires has been on the rise in recent years, but that trend isn’t necessarily related to women starting their own businesses or earning more money. Indeed many of the world’s richest women either inherited their wealth or married into it. A 2019 study published in American Sociological Review found that a woman’s surest path to joining the 1% is through marriage.
The Giving Pledge announced early Tuesday that MacKenzie Bezos had joined the campaign along with five other individuals and 13 other couples. Other new signers include British investor Jeremy Grantham, the co-founder of Grantham Mayo Van Otterloo, and Jane and Robert Toll, the co-founder of the American homebuilding company Toll Brothers.