For over a decade, Jeff Bezos' parents, Mike and Jackie, have presided over the small but steadily growing Bezos Family Foundation, which the couple started in 2000, along with their three children and spouses, using their own shares of Amazon stock.
But here's the thing: The Bezos Family Foundation is no longer so small. While its assets remain modest, it gave away some $15 million in 2012—focusing largely on education. In just the past few years, the foundation has emerged as a bigger player in education philanthropy, making large grants to national organizations.
We'll be writing more about the foundation's education funding and strategy in the week to come; here we look at what Mike and Jackie Bezos are all about.
For starters, the family foundation really is Mike and Jackie's operation, as I recently explained here. It appears that Jeff Bezos hasn't contributed any of his own wealth to the foundation to date, and he could well start his own foundation with his wife MacKenzie, so it may be that the Bezos Family Foundation will remain Mike and Jackie's own shop. Or it may be that Jeff's parents are the advance team who are exploring, and learning about, the world of philanthropy—laying the groundwork for Jeff and MacKenzie's mega-giving in future years. That's what William Gates, Sr., did for his son Bill, long before the Microsoft co-founder commenced his large-scale philanthropy. (Read: Jeff Bezos' IP profile)
Whatever the case, after a decade of giving away money—and dealing with those asking for it—Mike and Jackie Bezos now know much more about philanthropy than Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos, and it stands to reason that they will influence their son's giving. Especially since the Bezos family is reported to be very close.
So who are Mike and Jackie Bezos? And what clues does their philanthropy so far offer into Jeff and MacKenzie's future giving?
For starters, both Mike and Jackie overcame some adversity to get where they are. Mike is not Jeff's biological father (who Jeff has never met) and was born in Cuba (as Miguel). Mike came to the U.S. alone at the age of 15, and eventually worked his way through the University of Albuquerque. He then went to work for Exxon as a petroleum engineer. Mike met Jeff's mother when she was just 17—a teenager with a baby, Jeff, whose father had abandoned them both.
Despite being a teen mother, it's not like Jackie Bezos grew up in a trailer park or anything. Her father was a high level official with the Atomic Energy Commission who supervised the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore laboratories. He was major influence on Jeff growing up, with his wide-ranging knowledge of science.
Like many early Cuban immigrants who fled Castro, Mike Bezos' politics seem to lean in the libertarian direction—judging by a campaign contribution he made to Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party's candidate in the 2012 presidential election. On the other hand, he also contributed in 2010 to Democratic senators Michael Bennett and Patty Murray, and was a pretty big contributor to Cory Booker's campaign for U.S. Senate in 2013. At the state level, Mike has contributed to two Republican candidates, and one Democrat. And he and Jackie kicked in a million dollars to help pass a 2012 ballot measure in Washington to authorized the creation of 40 charter schools in the state.
Jackie Bezos' track record of political giving closely tracks with Mike's, although she definitely did not help try to put a Libertarian in the White House.
Education is the big issue for both Mike and Jackie, unlike Jeff, who's giving has mainly focused on scientific and medical research. This issue is particularly personal for Mike, who's opportunities in life were transformed by his education at the University of Albuquerque. Mike likes to say, “your education is always yours—once you have it, it cannot be taken away.”
Education is pretty much the sole focus of the Bezos Family Foundation, and its giving in this area seems largely middle of the road. While Jeff and Jackie see education itself as a "silver bullet," and the key to everything, they are not doctrinaire or fixated with metrics, and their funds are spread pretty widely. In a statement of core belief, the foundation talks about the important education in ensuring equality of opportunity, but also the importance of building "character" and "self-direction."
Like many other centrist education funders, the Bezos believe strongly in charter schools. Beyond together contributing a million dollars to the 2012 ballot initiative to allow charter schools in Washington State, the Bezos Family Foundation has also supported KIPP, and other charter school outfits.
Jackie and Mike Bezos also believe in the transformative power of leaders, and created the Bezos Scholars Program to enable high school juniors and their teachers to attend the Aspen Ideas Festival every summer for six days.
As for general grantmaking, the foundation has been ramping up fast, and in 2012, it gave away over $15 million, mainly in the form of Amazon stock.
After nearly 15 years of giving, Jackie and Mike Bezos have established themselves as experienced, thoughtful philanthropists. The questions now are these: Just how much money does the couple have to give away? Will Jeff and MacKenzie eventually start to do their giving through the foundation? And regardless of whether they do or don't, how influential will Mike and Jackie be in helping chart their son's future giving?