Over the last few decades, as multinational corporations have grown significantly, it seems the corporate agenda has slowly changed, and philanthropy has become a big part of many companies ethos. Supported by the business tycoons that run them, companies have started a trend of indulging in philanthropic behaviour, whereby they donate large sums of money in order to drive ‘meaningful’ change.
The epitome of this is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Set up by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, the foundation joined the Global Polio Eradication Initiative in 2000. From the billions of dollars donated by Gates (and many other NGOs), the World Health Organisation shows that as of 2018, polio has been eradicated by almost 99%. The efforts of Gates and the support of this foundation have impacted the lives of many, and this decisively clears any doubt that the foundation was set-up purely for self-gratification. This was not for Gates to satisfy an internal desire to be deemed charitable, or as a publicity stunt, but genuinely an investment into the welfare of others. The result can be viewed in some instances as an advocate for the amazing impact capitalism can have on humanity.
It would seem the concept of corporate philanthropy – giving back with no expectation of anything in return, is an endangered philosophy
But the philanthropic acts of some haven’t always promoted the welfare of others, and it is apparent some have displayed questionable motivations. It would seem the concept of corporate philanthropy – giving back with no expectation of anything in return, is an endangered philosophy. More often than not, it is being used as a strategic marketing tool, allowing the donor to reap benefits too. Billionaire Steve Schwarzman ‘generously’ offered $25 million to the school he attended as a boy, on the condition it renamed itself in honour of his donation, and a portrait of himself was put up. Was this truly a selfless act to give back to his school? Or was it merely a publicity stunt, a way to feel a sense of self-gratification, without actually giving up much?
More recently, Jeff Bezos, owner of Amazon, was criticised for his £1.5 billion donation to the ‘Bezos Day One Fund’, created to combat homelessness. On the surface, this would seem a rather generous act to help some of those most vulnerable in our society. So why has his philanthropic act been deemed as an excuse for self-gratification?
Well, Amazon notably played a huge part in hindering the efforts being made in Seattle to combat homelessness. Seattle is one of the largest cities in America, and with that it also holds the country’s third largest homelessness population. The local council proposed taxing corporations $500 per employee, and using the revenue to produce more affordable housing in an attempt to reduce the level of homelessness. Instead of taking the opportunity to help this initiative, Amazon stopped the construction of its new tower, and threatened to move its business elsewhere. Even after the council lowered the tax amount to $275 per employee, Amazon were still not interested. Instead, they rallied together with companies such as Starbucks and Kroger, and pressured the council into dropping the tax entirely. What would have been a small sum to such a large company, yet a significant sum to those with no home, never materialised, and Seattle continued to struggle with helping those in need.
Despite profits going to a good cause, there are numerous morally questionable decisions from Amazon and Bezos
The sense of irony, from Jeff Bezos presenting himself as philanthropist, slowly becomes more apparent. Alongside this are accusations that Amazon has a history of under paying its own employees, who end up with insufficient wages, whilst their hard work is creating the exact profits Bezos is donating to his charitable fund. As a clearly profit motivated company owner, it is hard to associate Bezos motivations entirely with being naturally philanthropic, but rather with wanting to present a socially responsible image of Amazon to the public satisfying the need for self-gratification. The actions of Bezos can be likened to the corporate social responsibility programmes run by tobacco companies, where profit money made from a product which causes the leading cause of preventable deaths, then goes on to help those in need – creating a ‘paradox of morality’. Despite profits going to a good cause, there are numerous morally questionable decisions from Amazon and Bezos, which make our inner cynicism question how selfless and philanthropic Bezos actually is.
It would seem the saying ‘charity begins at home’ is something Bezos may want to consider if he is to defend himself against further criticism, and prove his actions have not been for self-gratification.