Published in 1889, Andrew Carnegie’s essay, “The Gospel of Wealth” claimed that economic inequality was “the price of progress” and therefore unavoidable. He urged the wealthy to donate their fortunes, endowing institutions that that would aid “those who desire to rise” such as universities, public libraries, and music halls. Seeing these types of endowments as transcendent from mere charity given their intention to uplift society, many entrepreneurs continue see “The Gospel of Wealth” as the ultimate playbook for modern philanthropy. In 2010, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Michael Bloomberg and others led and debuted a contemporary manifesto called “The Giving Pledge,” which promises most of the signatories’ wealth to philanthropy.

Giridharadas’ book points out some of the contradictions in this line of thought. “The winners of our age must be challenged to do more good. But never, ever tell them to do less harm,” he writes. Though for-profit companies as diverse as Walmart, McKinsey & Company and Facebook may tout a mission to “change the world,” their continued prioritization on generating revenue—and the effects that come with it in the short term—can overshadow their ability to generate “economic value in a way that also produces value for society by addressing its challenges” in the long run.

In other words, charity doesn’t make up for poor business practices that hurt other people, the economy or the environment. When for-profit companies decide to give back only after amassing great wealth, they inherently maintain their position at the top of the socioeconomic ladder, even if their donations help address societal inequality. It’s equally important to questions the intentions behind a for-profit company’s altruistic endeavors and how the history of a business aligns with its charity. Even if Carnegie’s name is attached to various educational and social institutions, from Carnegie Mellon University to Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, his business practices had a darker side, particularly when it came to his anti-union policy.

Buffett made a fortune endorsing fast food, but turned to philanthropy late in the game.

The “Doing Good” Index: Education, Social justice, Socioeconomic

Warren Buffett’s holding company Berkshire Hathaway has grown to be Coca Cola’s biggest shareholder since the eighties, when it first invested $1 billion in the beverage company. Since then, Coca Cola’s value has more than tripled and the company is now worth $16.5 billion. Berkshire Hathaway’s portfolio also includes banks, insurers, manufacturing companies and railroads, but it also holds a distinct number of unhealthy and fast food-related companies beyond Coca Cola: Wrigley, Heinz, Dairy Queen and See’s Candy (Buffett owns the latter two). Since Buffett acquired See’s Candy in 1972 for $25 million, sales have risen from $30 million to $400 million in 2014.

Buffett has built a cult of personality around his “everyman” lifestyle which features both Cherry Coke and McDonald’s—notoriously, his wife puts out either $2.61, $2.95, or $3.17 in exact change each morning, depending on what Buffett plans to order from McDonald’s for breakfast. Buffett is also continuously profiled as one of the most charitable billionaires. However, much of his business history has prioritized “giving people what they want,” rather than innovating, in addition to profiting off the promotion of an unhealthy lifestyle. Though Buffett once lauded the cigarette business to fellow investor John Gutfreund—“it costs a penny to make. Sell it for a dollar. It’s addictive. And there’s fantastic brand loyalty”—he personally saw owning a tobacco company as a burden. But candy—also cheap to make and hard to resist—is not much different.

For years, Buffett thought that society would benefit more from letting his money pile up before donating it. Though this brought him a good deal of criticism, the “godfather of compound interest” believed that he would have the biggest impact by managing his money until his death, and then giving it away to charity.

However, Buffett’s first wife’s premature passing in 2004 and other considerations led him to announce plans to donate 85% of his wealth—about $37.4 billion—in Berkshire Hathaway stock to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other philanthropies starting in 2006 in annual installments. This promise was reinforced by Buffett’s signature to “The Giving Pledge” four years later; the year-to-year schedule for the donations also helped crystallize Buffett’s desire to forge a long-term investment in society rather than giving away a large lump sum. In July 2018, Buffett again made headlines after donating $3.4 billion in his annual gift of Berkshire Hathaway shares to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and to four foundations run by his family members (an education-focused charity named after his late wife Susan (scholarships to college students in Nebraska); Sherwood Foundation chaired by their daughter (social justice in Nebraska); Howard G. Buffett Foundation (international poverty), led by his son; NoVo Foundation, run by his youngest son Peter and his wife Jennifer (international collaboration, partnership). Including this latest donation, Buffett has given a total of $31 billion to these organizations—and more to others.

However, Buffett’s contributions to a high-sugar, high-fat and high-cholesterol lifestyle have not inspired him to donate to any obesity, heart disease or diabetes initiatives (recently he has considered a joint venture with J.P. Morgan Chase and Amazon to alleviate high cost and bureaucracy of U.S. healthcare system). It’s possible he may have to confront this reality increasingly as time goes on, particularly as Coca Cola is now struggling with declining sales for its sugary drinks, pointing to a shift in consumer opinion.

Bezos became the richest man in the world without paying sufficient attention to Amazon’s global impact.

The “Doing Good” Index: Consumer, Education, Socioeconomic

Jeff Bezos reached a financial zenith this year, garnering a fortune of $167 billion (as of September 2018) and becoming the wealthiest man in the world. But for years, Bezos’ lack of philanthropy—he has donated $68 million since 2000, about 0.04% of his fortune—has been sharply derided.

Critique has only been aggravated by reports on the company’s mistreatment of employees, particularly in Amazon’s warehouses, whether in the form of crushing unionization, low wages, surveillance or repressive noncompete clauses. The company’s impact also extends far beyond the workplace; opening Amazon fulfillment centers lowers the wages of other warehouses in that area, for example, wielding massive influence over entire city economies.

In May 2018, activists in Seattle lobbied their city council to pass a “head tax” on companies in the city that make more than $20 million in revenue. This singled out Amazon to advocate that the company fund municipal projects like affordable housing and homelessness. But after Amazon threatened to scale back its business in Seattle, the council repealed the tax plan.

Traditionally, the more most for-profit companies make, the greater their contribution to society in the form of taxes. They also bolster the economy and GDP by selling products, which raises the standard of living in their country. And, as these companies grow, they provide employment to more people. Amazon, however, most recently came under fire for the zero federal corporate income tax dollars the company paid in 2017, despite its $5.6 billion in profits and $177.9 billion in revenue. In terms of bolstering economies and living standards, Amazon has established new fulfillment centers in numerous municipalities, bringing in an influx of business and employment, but typically tries, and often succeeds in receiving tax breaks. Since 2014, Ohio has granted more than $125 million in tax breaks and cash grants to Amazon for new warehouses. While this has brought vast new employment opportunities to Ohio, more than 10% of Amazon employees in the state rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to purchase groceries (a governmental program funded by tax revenue).

While there has been little transparency on how Amazon is imploring states around the U.S. to bid for the location of its second headquarters (HQ2) since it announced the plan in September 2017, publicly available proposals point to massive tax credits and other financial incentives that states are offering to win the vote. The new headquarters, however, will drastically alter city life, inflating housing prices and pricing out long-term residents. Amazon’s profitability only exacerbates concerns among consumers and local and federal government officials alike, as this wealth has been achieved in large part by investing huge sums in operations and expansions that have continuously reduced prices for Amazon’s customers, only made possible thanks to Amazon’s cheap labor force.

In the past, Bezos has said that “the only way [he] can see to deploy this much financial resource is by converting [his] Amazon winnings into space travel,” referring to his aerospace company, Blue Origin, which he funds with $1 billion each year via the sale of Amazon stock. With Blue Origin, his long-term goal is to build infrastructure for future space entrepreneurs, parallel to how USPS and FedEx gave Bezos the delivery infrastructure to build Amazon. But in June 2017, facing prolonged criticism, Bezos decided to crowdsource ideas on Twitter for a philanthropic strategy that “would stand more at the intersection of urgent need and lasting impact.”

As Amazon’s employee base grows—it nearly doubled in size between 2015 and 2018, largely a result of the Whole Foods acquisition—and it continues to expand its empire, Amazon will be increasingly responsible for all of the people and places it touches with its global supply chain. Though criticism about Bezos’ lack of humanitarianism signals that the public expects a certain level of philanthropy from corporations, it’s important to judge donations with a critical eye when they are made. In September 2018, Bezos announced that he and his wife were putting $2 billion into a philanthropic fund, the Bezos Day One Fund, which will support existing nonprofits focused on alleviating homelessness and broadening access to preschool education. But the fund leaves open many unanswered questions about how the organization will be structured and how it will work with nonprofits in the space. It won’t be a 501(c)(3)—a nonprofit organization that invests in public initiatives and must disclose financial information publicly—as Bezos has already alluded to investing in both public and private initiatives. It will likely be a limited liability company (LLC), allowing Bezos to invest in both private and public initiatives without a public commitment to transparency. But regardless of how the money is used, it does not clean up Amazon’s record. As The Information points out that, “At its worst, charity is said to distract us from the root causes of need. That is, lack of access to well-paid work”—something inextricable from Amazon’s rise and continued domination as an ecommerce platform.