Jeff Bezos, president and chief executive of Amazon and owner of The Washington Post, speaks at the Economic Club of Washington DC's "Milestone Celebration Dinner" in Washington. Photo: Reuters

INTERNATIONAL – Jeff Bezos and his wife, MacKenzie Bezos, launched a $2 billion (R29bn) fund to help homeless families and create a network of non-profit preschools in low-income communities.

The move catapults the world’s richest person into a rarefied group of billionaire megadonors at a time when his company, Inc., faces growing scrutiny over its rising power and impact on the economy.

The Bezos Day One Fund will focus on two initiatives, the billionaire announced in an online post on Thursday. 

The first will fund existing non-profits and issue annual awards to organizations doing “compassionate, needle-moving work” to shelter and support the immediate needs of young families.

The second will operate a network of high-quality, full-scholarship Montessori-inspired preschools. The fund’s vision statement comes from nonprofit Mary’s Place in Seattle: no child sleeps outside.

“We’ll use the same set of principles that have driven Amazon,” wrote Bezos. “Most important among those will be genuine, intense customer obsession. The child will be the customer.”

With a personal fortune of $163.8bn, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, the Amazon chief executive officer had been largely invisible in the world of philanthropy. 

His net worth has risen by $64.7bn this year alone as Amazon’s shares surged. Bezos’ relative silence was a stark contrast to peers like Bill Gates, whose foundation is the world’s largest, and Warren Buffett, who has vowed to give away the majority of his wealth.

Last year, Bezos solicited advice from the public via Twitter, asking how he could best use his wealth to help people “right now.” At the time, he said he was interested in projects that address urgent need but also produce lasting impact. 

The missive set off a frenzy of responses, including pleas to support health care, loan forgiveness and even offbeat appeals to back a leather fetish museum in Chicago.

Until now, Bezos, 54, had only taken small steps into philanthropy. The Bezos Family Foundation, best known for supporting children’s education, has been largely funded by his parents from Amazon holdings they acquired as early investors in their son’s enterprise. 

Outside of that, Bezos and his family’s known donations have included gifts to Princeton University and Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

It’s not surprising that the world’s richest person "is finally getting serious about philanthropy," said David Callahan, founder of website Inside Philanthropy. "With big fortunes like that, the only thing you can really do is give it away -- unless you want the government to take half of it through estate tax."

The staggering fortunes of the likes of Bezos, Gates and Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg have created a second Gilded Age in the US and "a new generation of mega givers", Callahan said. 

"It was only a matter of time before Bezos would join this new era of big philanthropy."

The Bezos gift is one of the biggest single donations ever announced for preschools, if not the biggest, said Avo Makdessian, director of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation’s Center for Early Learning. 

As with most investment decisions by the Amazon founder, this one was likely grounded in data and science. Research shows 90 percent of a child’s brain development occurs before the age of 5, yet most charitable gifts pegged for education target older children, according to Makdessian.

Some of the world’s richest people have begun giving away their wealth while still running companies, while others embrace philanthropy full-time after stepping away from the day-to-day business. Increasingly, the wealthy want to see their charitable giving put to work on immediate needs.