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Jeff Bezos donates $100 million to the Obama Presidential Foundation, largest individual gift ever

Bezos, one of the richest people in the world, asked for the plaza in the Obama Presidential Center to be named for the late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the civil rights icon who died in 2020.

A rendering of the Obama Presidential Center.
A rendering of the Obama Presidential Center, being built in Jackson Park near the Museum of Science and Industry.
Courtesy of the Obama Foundation

WASHINGTON — Jeff Bezos is donating $100 million to the Obama Presidential Foundation, its biggest individual contribution to date, the foundation announced Monday.

As part of the deal, Bezos, one of the richest people in the world, asked for the plaza in the Obama Presidential Center to be named for the late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the civil rights icon who died in 2020.

The gift is also intended to, according to the foundation, “help expand the scope of programming that reaches emerging leaders in the United States and around the world.”

As with most institutional fundraising, the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park is using naming rights for all of its spaces as a carrot for donors.

The center will have, besides the plaza, a museum tower, a Chicago Public Library branch, a forum, a combination athletic/meeting center, garden, recording studio, children’s play area and a “great lawn.”

There is also the potential of naming rights for exhibits within the museum and other smaller spaces in and outside the center.

PowerPoint PDFs with naming rights opportunities — and the donation amount required — were sent to donors and potential contributors earlier this year.

The foundation announced Monday that it is seeking to change the model around naming rights in the center’s public spaces, “using it as an opportunity to give donors the option to honor and elevate the names of those who have fought for a more just and equitable world.”

“Dedicated public spaces at the Center will honor civil rights icons, social justice heroes, and change-makers in public service, business and entertainment,” the foundation said.

Former President Barack Obama beside a drawing of the plans for his presidential center in Jackson Park.
Former President Barack Obama beside a drawing of the plans for his presidential center in Jackson Park.
Scott Olson/Getty

Bezos is the founder of Amazon, owner of the Washington Post and of Blue Origin, the spaceflight company, among other enterprises.

“Freedom fighters deserve a special place in the pantheon of heroes, and I can’t think of a more fitting person to honor with this gift than John Lewis, a great American leader and a man of extraordinary decency and courage,” said Jeff Bezos in a statement. “I’m thrilled to support President and Mrs. Obama and their Foundation in its mission to train and inspire tomorrow’s leaders.”

Obama Foundation CEO Valerie Jarrett in a statement, “We believe that there is incredible power in lifting up the names of extraordinary change agents upon whose shoulders we all stand, and we are thrilled by Mr. Bezos’ offer to name our magnificent Plaza in honor of John Lewis.”

“What’s more, Mr. Bezos’ generous unrestricted gift will enable us to help train a new generation of leaders through programs including the Girls Opportunity Alliance, My Brother’s Keeper, and our Global Leaders Program, while also supporting the Foundation’s Hometown Fund, which invests in the expansion of economic development opportunities for residents of Chicago’s South Side.”

Jarrett told the Chicago Sun-Times that Obama and Bezos spoke twice this fall over the phone “about Jeff’s interest in making the donation and honoring John Lewis. The idea was initially pitched to Jeff by Jay Carney.”

Carney served as Obama’s second White House press secretary before moving on to work for Amazon and now for Bezos.

Using naming rights to send a message has already been done, at least once. When Amazon bought the naming rights to the Seattle arena it was renamed the “Climate Pledge Arena” rather than for Amazon.

After the Sept. 28 ceremonial Obama Presidential Center groundbreaking, the Obama Foundation released the names of its $10 million megadonors from corporations and foundations with Chicago ties.

The foundation is expected in the coming days to announce Chicago area individual, foundation or corporate donors using their naming rights to honor local and national historic figures. Donors still have the option of using their naming rights to highlight their own gifts.

Earlier this year, Jarrett announced a $1.6 billion fundraising goal. The funds are for building the center in Jackson Park at a cost of about $830 million; an endowment of an unspecified amount; plus money to pay for domestic and global programs.