The following is an open letter to Jeff Bezos in response to his request on Twitter last week for ideas on how to shape his philanthropy. Originally published in The Chronicle of Philanthropy, June 20, 2017.
Dear Mr. Bezos,
It’s terrific that you are thinking about getting into philanthropy. The world today faces a huge number of problems that could use a new way of thinking about how to solve them, backed by money to get it done. And if you do it right, you will find it even more rewarding than your businesses.
Gathering ideas through Twitter is a creative and attention-getting way to collect input into how you approach philanthropy. The thousands of responses to your tweet range from thoughtful programs to personal pleas for help. But what you ultimately choose to spend your philanthropic capital on should be a much more personal decision and merits more than 140 characters.
Amazon transformed the way the world shops. Blue Origin is making space travel a reality. You should bring the same vision, ambition, and passion to your philanthropy.
You cited Mary’s Place, a wonderful shelter for women and children, as an example of how great it would be to help people today. But Seattle is struggling with an increasingly visible homeless problem that is dividing communities over how to manage tent cities and handle related problems, such as drug use, mental illness, and crime. There is a deeper challenge here that cities need help in solving.
You can achieve swift and satisfying results if you focus on short-term impact, but I predict you won’t be satisfied with quick-fix solutions, as important as they are to the people who need them. You will want to solve the underlying, long-term problem.
I recommend taking on a challenge where you can do both at the same time.
For example, there is a group of horrific diseases that plague more than 1.5 billion people living in the poorest of countries. Often transmitted by mosquitoes or worms, they are appropriately called “neglected tropical diseases” because people in wealthy countries aren’t affected and pay little attention. Can you believe leprosy still exists?
Many of these diseases have effective treatments, but they are not getting to those who need them. If you were to choose this as an issue to focus on, you could go for the immediate satisfaction of delivering medicines that would cure people today. Yet there is a need for long-term solutions as well.
You, more than anyone else, are a business leader who understands the crucial role of systems. By taking a systemic approach, you could work with others to eliminate these illnesses from the face of the earth. This is harder — it requires setting ambitious targets, designing action plans, getting governments, nonprofits, and donors to agree on a strategy, and then ensuring it gets done. But only through such a catalytic coalition will the problem be solved so future generations won’t have to suffer.
This same two-pronged approach can be applied to ensuring children worldwide get access to education or to feeding people in famine-prone regions. They deserve both short-term and long-term solutions.
There are an endless number of issues that could benefit from your visionary leadership. Pick a small number of them and focus your money (and your time, if you are willing to give some of that, too) on solving those. Too many philanthropists make the mistake of spreading their assets too widely among multiple causes. Or they look for the silver-bullet solutions, and quick glory, without investing the energy needed to bring people along.
So here is my advice to you:
–Take the same transformative approach to philanthropy that you brought to your business.
–Pick problems that energize you personally.
–Make immediate results stick by tackling systemic issues to solve the problem for tomorrow.
–Focus, so you can achieve greater results.
Above all, this work must come from the heart. You may be surprised by how much joy and purpose you can add to an already full life by pursuing philanthropy in a way that makes a difference.