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If Bezos Wants A Big Bang for Her Billions of Bucks, She Should Start Small

Written by Evan Feinberg • 4 min read

MacKenzie Bezos made headlines this summer when she announced her plans to give away half of her $35-billion-dollar fortune. She is the latest in a growing number of billionaire philanthropists who have signed “The Giving Pledge” – a commitment made by billionaires to donate the bulk of their wealth to charitable initiatives. More than 200 individuals and couples have made the pledge, including Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Mark Zuckerberg.

The trend is a welcome one. Individual philanthropy is a cornerstone of our nation’s efforts to break the cycle of poverty and help all people realize their potential. Sadly, such efforts often fail to achieve their goals.

Although charitable giving has steadily increased over the past several years and reached $410 billion in 2017, social mobility is, by some measures, on the decline. The overwhelming majority of Americans born in 1940 earned more than their parents; only half of those born in 1980 have done so. America is supposed to be a nation in which anyone with a dream and the drive to make it happen can succeed – and then help others do so. The reality is that, despite the generosity of people at the top, those at the bottom are less and less likely to scale the socio-economic ladder.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We know that charitable initiatives truly do make a difference in the lives of individuals grappling with poverty. The key is finding organizations that take the right approach to helping those in need. As Bezos and others like her determine how best to invest their great wealth, here’s what they should be looking for:

Change and community, not cash and connections. It’s tempting to assume that bigger is better; large organizations have the cash and the contacts to make a significant difference. But more often than not, bigger means bloated and bureaucratic. Instead of meeting struggling individuals where they are, large organizations impose layers of expensive bureaucracy that ultimately wind up alienating those they’re attempting to help.

By contrast, we’ve found through working with our growing network of more than 150 nonprofits that the most impactful organizations emerge from the communities they assist. While some are large, they’re more often small organizations that can nimbly and effectively respond to the unique needs of these communities. Instead of telling people how to fix their problem, they come alongside them and encourage innovative, bottom-up solutions. Philanthropists should prioritize organizations that have genuinely helped transform lives or a community – not those with big names and big numbers.

Personal experience of the problem. Often, foundations and nonprofits are run by seasoned nonprofit executives or former political leaders. And while there’s no doubt these leaders are well-meaning and want to make a difference, there’s an underlying assumption that “experts” who develop “best practices” are the best equipped to address a problem, sometimes over those who have actually experienced and overcome it.

An effective organization starts with an effective leader – and an effective leader is often one whose lived experience provides unique credibility and knowledge to innovate upon. A gang intervention program led by someone who started a gang will often find better answers than one led by an academic or business professional.

Mutual assistance and moral dignity. The most effective nonprofits are focused on creating value for the people they serve—not on pleasing their donors. Their donors become investors and their clients become their focus. They want to create value for people who are capable of extraordinary things—if offered the tools and support to do so.

In other words, they believe that the individuals whom they serve are moral agents capable of building up themselves and their community. This entails both acknowledging historic injustices that still shape today’s socio-economic landscape and refusing to let them be the final word.

In the process, great organizations push for community self-sufficiency, not dependency. They cultivate an ethic of mutual support, not one-sided patronage. They believe it’s a matter of removing barriers to success, rather than building success on someone else’s behalf.

In her words on the Giving Pledge’s website, Bezos has promised to keep giving “until the safe is empty.” Current estimates say that if she holds to this promise, she’ll have to give away multiple billion dollars a year. It’s an amazing amount of money and, rightly used, it can do an amazing amount of good. My hope is that Bezos and others like her will look to organizations that humanize those whom they help, harnessing disruptive solutions that equip communities grappling with poverty to discover their full potential and power.

Evan Feinberg

Written by Evan Feinberg

Executive Director, Stand Together Foundation

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