On November 25 2019, Twitter user @TheyCallMeChew tweeted about the controversial donation by Amazon chief executive officer Jeff Bezos of nearly $100 million to homelessness charities, claiming that the donation was not what it seemed:
On November 26 2019, we published a separate, partially related fact check about Bezos’ donation, which had to do with comparisons between the amount cited ($98.5 million) and the CEO’s net worth. In the tweet, @TheyCallMeChew claimed:
Jeff Bezos didn’t donate 100m lol. He took 100m of amazon stock ”donated” it to his own charity. Then put a bunch of stipulations on liquidating the stock. He moved money from one pocket to the other pocket. This was all to avoid paying taxes, he does not care about the homeless.
Similar allegations appeared in “a short list of facts” shared to Reddit’s r/LateStageCapitalism on November 26 2019:
As noted in our original coverage of discourse around Bezos’ donation, a glowing Forbes piece about the purported donation went viral. It began:
The Richest Person In The World Just Gave $98.5 Million To Help The Homeless
Jeff Bezos, the richest person in the world, announced on [November 21 2019] he has donated $98.5 million to 32 organizations in 23 states that are helping homeless families. The gifts to each organization received ranged from $1.25 million to $5 million.
The Amazon founder and CEO gave the money through his Bezos Day One Fund, which he announced in September 2018. At launch, Bezos pledged $2 billion to the fund, which has two areas of focus: funding the work of organizations who help homeless families, and creating Montessori-inspired preschools across the country.
Further down in the reporting, Forbes surmised that the entire sum — nearly $100 million — was in the form of Amazon stock, adding that a spokesperson for the company declined to comment:
The day that the new gifts were announced, Bezos filed with the Securities Exchange Commission that he was donating 56,702 share of Amazon stock — worth just under $99 million — to nonprofits. The timing of the Bezos stock donation makes it seem like the shares could have been donated to Day One Fund grant recipients. A spokesman for Amazon declined to comment.
A November 26 2019 report also noted the coinciding donations and filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission:
[In November 2019, Bezos] has given at least 59,143 shares, roughly $103.1 million, of his personal Amazon stock to nonprofits, according to records at the Securities and Exchange Commission. Which charity? That’s not clear in the records, but transactions more or less coincide with $98.5 million in giving from the Bezos Day One Fund to more than 30 housing and shelter nonprofits across the United States. Even with the gifts, Bezos remains the single richest man on earth.
Although Amazon declined to discuss whether the donations were in the form of Amazon shares, a November 21 2019 Orlando Sentinel article (headlined “Jeff Bezos charity donates $5.25 million to Central Florida homeless families”) covered one such gift to a local charity. In that reporting — published before criticisms began rolling in and then went viral — the recipients offered some details.
The charity disclosed that they did indeed receive Amazon stock, which was valued at approximately $5.25 million:
“We are incredibly grateful for this generous investment in our work,” said Martha Are, CEO of the Homeless Services Network. “Central Florida is one of the most challenging areas in the nation for families facing homelessness, and this investment will help [the region] continue to change that narrative.”
The money comes in the form of Amazon stock — from Bezos’ Day 1 Families Fund — and goes to the Homeless Services Network of Central Florida, which received the largest award among 32 nonprofits across the country selected for the invitation-only grant.
In the tweet, @TheyCallMeChew claimed that Bezos’ foundation “put a bunch of stipulations on liquidating the stock.” The Sentinel went on to report that restrictions on how the stock might be spent was part of the deal, although one aspect was not about necessarily liquidating it:
“This will be only for the literally homeless,” Are said. The restrictions on the grant specify it can’t be used to help families living in motel rooms, which number in the thousands.
That came later in the article:
Homeless Services Network will need to manage the stock over the next five years to maximize its value. It was not immediately clear if there is a limit on how much of the gift can be cashed in each year.
Reporting on individual recipients was common in what appeared to be a public relations coup for Bezos, but not all reports addressed the form in which the funds were offered. A targeted search returned only 11 results when the words “liquidated” or “managed” were included, 16 when only “liquidated.” Many of the individual charities issued what looked to be a co-branded press release from both Bezos’ Day One Families organization and the specific charity:
St. Vincent de Paul of Baltimore will effectively use this funding to make a lasting, long-term impact to end family homelessness in Baltimore. A significant portion of the funding will be used to pilot a new Coordinated Entry system with two family service hubs that will serve 4,000 famillies over four years, as well as new Shelter Diversion services for families, to ensure families will have access to shelter and affordable housing. The award will also be used to seed the development of new supportive and affordable permanent housing units.
The Bezos Day One Fund was launched in 2018 with a commitment of $2 billion and a focus on two areas: funding existing nonprofits that help homeless families, and creating a network of new, nonprofit tier-one preschools in low-income communities. The Day 1 Families Fund issues annual leadership awards to organizations and civic groups doing compassionate, needel-moving work to provide shelter and hunger support to address the immediate needs of young families. The vision statement comes from inspiring Mary’s Place in Seattle: no child sleeps outside. For more information, visit www.BezosDayOneFund.org/Day1FamiliesFund.
Wording and format of many of the press releases were similar [PDF], including grant amounts and links to both Bezos’ foundation and the charity recipient. In August 2019, Vox’s Recode reported on Bezos’ Day One Families Foundation in general, in a long-form piece largely extolling Bezos’ generosity.
However, gifts in the form of Amazon stock did get a mention. In that context, additional detail about the “only question” was not available:
There would be no other questions after that five-page application. No site visits. No interviews. The next time they’d hear from Bezos’s staff, the only question was whether they’d like their donation in cash or Amazon stock. A lump sum payment arrived just before Thanksgiving.
That article mentioned unspecified restrictions, but those were framed in a context of overall flexibility:
To be clear, the Bezos money has to be spent on family homelessness measures, but there are very few restrictions under that umbrella. The grant agreements that Bezos and the nonprofits signed do not legally limit how they spend the money, and multiple nonprofits told Recode that they’ve changed some of their plans after receiving Bezos’s gifts.
“This is really the most flexible funding that we’ve ever had,” said Beech. “I could understand that some people would look for that traditional response. For us, we’re like, ‘Welcome to the modern world.’”
Using Amazon’s closing price of $1,990 per share [in September 2019], it would take a gift of just over 1 million Amazon shares to put $2 billion into Bezos Day One Fund. That would still leave Bezos with nearly 78 million shares … While his parents, Jacklyn and Miguel Bezos, operate the Bezos Family Foundation and contributed $75 million worth of Amazon stock from 2014 to 2016 alone to the philanthropic vehicle, the Amazon founder himself is less involved. He and his wife, Mackenzie, gave $5 million worth of Amazon stock towards the foundation in 2015, documents show.
On Bezos’ Wikipedia page, a section titled “Philanthropy” was preceded by notice that Wikipedia editors had flagged that portion:
The neutrality of this section is disputed. Relevant discussion may be found on the talk page. Please do not remove this message until conditions to do so are met. (January 2019)
The section went on to quote “philanthropy expert Janet Camarena, director of transparency initiatives at Foundation Center, [who] was quoted by CNBC as having questions about Bezos’ new fund, including the fund’s structure and how exactly it will be funded” as of September 2018. A CNBC article from which Camarena’s quote originated noted:
Without knowing the exact structure of the fund, it’s unclear where the $2 billion will come from. If it comes straight out of Bezos’s own pocket, which many assume it will, he will be eligible for steep tax deductions. Thirty percent of the gift will be deductible if he sets up a private foundation; 50 percent if it’s a donor-advised fund.
Most of the homelessness charity recipients of Jeff Bezos’ nearly $100 million donation did not disclose the terms of conditions in what appeared to be joint press releases. Some news links appearing to mention “stock” had been updated, making it difficult to determine whether they originally reported something similar to the Sentinel. Meanwhile, Forbes and other outlets pointed to SEC filings that appeared concurrently with the press blitz indicating the donation of 56,702 shares of Amazon stock valued at around $99 million, and previous funding to the larger Day One Families Foundation were in the form of stock. At least one charity confirmed their large donation was in the form of stock with stipulations, a practice described in an August 2019 Vox article about the foundation as optional.