What's the First Thing to Know About the Bezos Family Foundation?

It's not run by Jeff Bezos. Or even funded by him. That's the first thing to know.

Yes, the Bezos name conjures up billions of dollars in Amazon wealth, but don't expect to find such billions—or in fact, any of Jeff Bezos' $30 billion fortune—in the endowment of the Bezos Family Foundation. Nor does the foundation fund scientific research, Jeff's main funding interest. 

Instead, the Bezos Family Foundation is more of a mom-and-pop operation. Literally. The conception and operation of the foundation is almost entirely the work of Bezos' parents, Mike and Jackie Bezos.

Jeff Bezos (read Jeff Bezos' IP profile) has apparently not contributed anything to the Bezos Family Foundation, according to a close reading of the foundation's 990 tax forms. All of its modest assets of over $32 millon circa 2012, have come from Miguel and Jacklyn Bezos, who set up the Bezos Family Foundation in 2001, with an initial gift of 210,000 shares of Amazon stock, then worth about $2.4 million. They subsequently put in more stock, including 100,000 shares in 2007, then worth $6.3 million. The current endowment largely reflects the astronomical rise in Amazon's stock value over the past decade.

Obviously, it would be unfair to say that Jeff Bezos has contributed nothing to the foundation, since it wouldn't exist without his business acumen and his parents clearly got either a sizeable gift of stock or were lucky and smart enough to be very early investors.

Jeff Bezos sits on the board of the Bezos Family Foundation, along with his parents and siblings, but it's not clear that he plays a very active role there. His wife, MacKenzie Bezos, also sits on the board. The philanthropic gifts by Jeff and MacKenzie over recent years, such as to Princeton University for neuroscience research, have not been routed through the Bezos Family Foundation.

While Jeff and MacKenzie's giving so far has focused on science and medical research, the family foundation focuses on education -- and, in fact, it's becoming an increasingly big player in the field, with some $15 million in grants going out the door in 2012 to a wide range of ed groups. 

All of which raises the question: What is the future of the Bezos Family Foundation? Two scenarios seem possible: First, that the foundation will eventually serve as a platform for the big-time giving of Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos, and all of its activities now are a prelude to that. That would track with Bill Gates'  move into philanthropy: Gates's father William Gates, Sr., used Microsoft stock to set up his own foundation in 1994 and played a key role through the 1990s in shaping his son's early philanthropy, as Bill focused on Microsoft.

A second scenario is that the Bezos Family Foundation remains largely what it is today, perhaps with a few further infusions of stock, and that Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos create a new foundation for the large-scale giving that inevitably lies in their future.

Either way, this is an important outfit to keep a close eye on—especially if you're in the ed field.