Bezos promised $100 million after Maui wildfire but no one knows where it’s going

Jeff Bezos. File image.

Jeff Bezos. File image.

Published Jan 20, 2024


Jeff Bezos has a habit of issuing splashy philanthropic promises while offering few details.

The latest: a $100 million pledge to help rebuild Maui after August’s devastating wildfires.

Bezos and fiancée Lauren Sanchez have given $15.5 million over the past five months through the Bezos Maui Fund, according to a spokesperson for the billionaire. But he declined to name the recipients - and local officials and nonprofits on Hawaii’s second-biggest island are puzzled at where the money might have gone.

This isn’t the first time Bezos has offered few specifics on his philanthropy. There was the $10 billion climate pledge, nine-figure gifts to famous friends and a vague promise to give away the majority of his wealth - all of which came with little more than a dollar figure and subject area, if that.

While other billionaires are also secretive with their giving, Bezos, the world’s second-richest person, stands out in part because his ex-wife, MacKenzie Scott, has redefined what it means to be an ultra-rich philanthropist. Scott, 53, has donated more than $16.5 billion since their 2019 divorce, and releases a list of recipients on her website, including more than 360 organizations that received money in the past year.

Bezos, 60, for his part, has donated more than $3 billion over that period. But that’s far off of the billions more he’s promised to give away with few immediate details.

‘Maximum Publicity’

The practice offers the Inc. founder “maximum publicity with minimum accountability,” said Benjamin Soskis, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute’s Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy.

While donors aren’t legally required to say where the money is going unless gifts have been made from a tax-exempt organization, “Bezos has gained the benefits of public attention and in exchange he needs to provide more information,” Soskis said.

Bezos’ spokesperson said in an email that the remaining $84.5 million pledged to help Maui “will be distributed in the coming years as the continuing needs reveal themselves.”

Keeping it vague has been a familiar pattern for Bezos in recent years. In 2020, he pledged $10 billion to battle climate change, though he gave almost no information on how he’d dole out that enormous amount of money or over what period of time. It took nine more months to make the first gifts. Since then, the Bezos Earth Fund has granted $1.84 billion, according to its website.

A year later, he launched the Courage & Civility Award, which so far has given $100 million grants to Van Jones, Jose Andrés and Dolly Parton to distribute to other nonprofit organizations. Bezos boasted at the time that the annual award requires little accountability of its recipients.

“No bureaucracy, no committees, they just do what they want,” Bezos told a crowd gathered in Van Horn, Texas, just after he went into suborbital space for the first time.

Bezos has been equally hazy about future giving. He told CNN in 2022 that he planned to give away the majority of his then-$124 billion fortune during his lifetime, without specifying potential recipients or a timetable. He’s since added more than $52 billion to his net worth, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

Nobody Knows

Bezos’ and Sanchez’s pledge was the splashiest commitment to help Maui after fires broke out across the northwest part of the island, killing roughly 100 people and leaving thousands more homeless. Sanchez said in an Aug. 11 Instagram post that the money will “help Maui get back on its feet now and over the coming years.”

But as months have passed, it’s unclear when and where the promised money has been distributed.

“Nobody’s heard anything at all,” said Angus McKelvey, the state senator representing West Maui, adding that he’s disappointed in the lack of information and collaboration. “Had they simply consulted with the community and myself and other representatives, we would’ve told them, ‘Take your money and put it over here.’”

Trisha Kehaulani Watson, vice president of native Hawaiian nonprofit ‘Āina Momona, said they haven’t gotten any of the money and was unaware of anyone in her network of nonprofits who has.

A half-dozen other nonprofits working on the island after the fire, including the Maui United Way and the People’s Fund of Maui, also said they haven’t received funds from Bezos and Sanchez.

Some speculated the money went to the Hawaii Community Foundation, which has raised more than $177 million for its Maui Strong Fund. A representative for the group said they “don’t have any information” on the destination of Bezos’s pledge, though they did receive a $2 million donation in September from the foundation started by Bezos’ parents.

Bezos and Sanchez, who own an estate on Maui’s La Perouse Bay, aren’t the only rich residents who’ve promised to chip in.

Oprah Winfrey and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson started the People’s Fund of Maui in August with initial contributions of $5 million each. The fund has since distributed about $40 million directly to more than 8,100 people. Scott also donated $5 million to the Hawaii Community Foundation.