What is Van Jones doing with Jeff Bezos’ $100 million gift?
It’s been eight months since Jeff Bezos stepped off the tip of his phallic rocket, peeked out from under a cowboy hat, and lavished $100 million each on chief philanthropist Jose Andrés and CNN commentator Van Jones, the first recipients of his somewhat loosely titled title Courage and Civility. Awards.
The donations were for charitable causes, but otherwise came with no strings attached. “No bureaucracy. No committees. They just do whatever they want,” Bezos said at the time.
Andrés, who feeds masses of people after humanitarian disasters through his nonprofit World Central Kitchen, says he is already spending some of his millions to help war-torn Ukrainians. The group prepares meals around the clock at eight border crossings, helps local restaurants in 12 towns and provides food for refugees in Romania, Moldova and Hungary.
As for Jones? This week he had revealed few details about his plans for the huge charity windfall and, through his spokesperson, declined to comment for this article. After The Daily Beast reached out, however, Jones posted an update to his Facebook page on Thursday evening, noting that he was “checking out opportunities” and “doing due diligence”, adding that the award gave him a boost. 10-year window to disburse funds.
The contrast between Andrés and Jones’ visibility may reflect their readiness to handle so much money quickly, said Benjamin Soskis, senior research associate at the Urban Institute’s Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy. Prior to Bezos’ surprise document, Andrés had already a proven track record of running a very large-scale charity group, so “it’s not a huge surprise that he continued to do the work he was doing. .. With Jones, I think was less clear.
Jones has experience in the nonprofit world, particularly in the area of criminal justice reform. He co-founded Dream Corps, which supports the reduction of the US prison population, and the racial justice organization Color of Change.
He was also the founding CEO of Reform Alliance, a nonprofit focused on similar issues that was launched after rapper Meek Mill was jailed.
Jones’ work has also sparked controversy, including when he reinforced President Donald Trump’s police reform policies on CNN in 2020, allegedly without telling viewers that he had collaborated with Jared Kushner on the project, as The Daily Beast reported that summer. (Jones refuse that he had attended meetings on the subject. He noted in a podcast last year, however, that he “took a lot of flak” for working with the Trump administration to help “people behind bars.”)
Bezos’ gift in July apparently caught Andrés and Jones off guard. At the time, Jones told CNN he received an out-of-the-box call from the Amazon founder days before the announcement.
Jones then attended the press conference in Texas after Bezos’ spaceflight, where he genuflected to the second richest man in the world. “Sometimes dreams come true,” he said of the award. “You have raised the ceilings of humanity’s dreams today.”
The rush of the giveaway – which had the theatrics of a PR stunt – was seen by some as an attempt by Bezos to silence critics of billionaire space tourism and match publicity that his ex-wife, MacKenzie Scott , had received for his record- breaking philanthropic efforts.
“Sometimes Scott’s approach is [characterized] like throwing money out of a plane. And it is not. There are immense amounts of research, scrutiny and attention that precede donation,” Soskis said. “From a distance, it was not clear that Bezos did this.”
Since Jones has yet to announce plans for the funds, Soskis blamed Bezos for not giving him enough notice. But he said going eight months without offering details “doesn’t sound great”.
Elizabeth Dale, associate professor of nonprofit leadership at Seattle University, told The Daily Beast that Jones’ lack of transparency can be explained because “World Central Kitchen could much more easily accept this influx of money,” while Jones had to figure out “how to distribute that money around you.
CNN’s talking head offered limited details about his plans. In an October interview, when asked by Insider how he would implement the funds, he replied, “Um, very carefully.” He said he would announce more information in 2022 and that his efforts would likely align with his previous work “to disrupt prisons, pollution and poverty”.
He was slightly more illuminating that same month during the inaugural episode of his podcast, Uncommon Ground, which featured Andrés as a guest.
“One of the challenges when you’re a benefactor, most people see me as a guy who made comments on TV. They don’t understand,” Jones said. “If you see me sitting next to Anderson Cooper for five minutes on the evening news, the other 23 hours a day…I was out there doing other things, mostly working with nonprofits, community organizations.”
Jones said he wants to take this work “to the next level” by supporting efforts to reform the criminal justice system. “I think the whole incarceration industry should be disrupted the same way Jeff Bezos disrupted bookstores,” he said.