”There are glass ceilings in philanthropy too, and she just broke it,“ one expert says
One of the very big things that happened in the Year of Our Misery 2020 was something spectacularly good: an historic distribution of gifts by Mackenzie Scott — ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos — of nearly $6 billion to more than 300 nonprofit organizations doing community-based work.
These included large gifts to historically black colleges, to groups run by LGBTQ activists and old-school charities like Easter Seals, United Ways and Good Wills across the country.
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Her gifts — unsolicited and with no strings attached — amount to what is believed to be the most money ever handed out directly to charities in a single year by a living donor, according to the New York Times.
Let us pause and note the stunning breadth and scope of this effort. In just a few months, the 50-year-old overthrew more than a century of philanthropic norms, assembling a top-level group of experts, gathering data and then handing out money — and fast.
Scott explained her approach in a post on Medium in mid-December: “(The team) took a data-driven approach to identifying organizations with strong leadership teams and results, with special attention to those operating in communities facing high projected food insecurity, high measures of racial inequity, high local poverty rates, and low access to philanthropic capital.”
The result was $4,158,500,000 given to 384 organizations across all 50 states — food banks, emergency relief funds and local support services. This sum also provided debt relief, employment training, credit and financial services for under-resourced communities, education for historically marginalized and underserved people, civil rights advocacy groups and legal defense funds that take on institutional discrimination. Scott had given $1.7 billion earlier in the year, for a total of $5.8 billion.
I’d never heard of anything like this. And it led me to wonder if female philanthropists are different from men. If so, how. And what impact this might have on future givers in a century of unimaginable wealth.
“There are glass ceilings in philanthropy too, and she just broke it,” a fundraiser for a major hospital told me. “And she was able to do it at a scale that was remarkable, and very quick.”
“She showed an overwhelming degree of force,” the fundraiser continued (this person was not authorized to speak on the record). “It was a super strike of philanthropy across the country to small places that really needed the help. Places where a $1 million gift was unbelievable, and a $10 million gift hadn’t been imagined.”
• Chief Dull Knife College
• Easterseals Rehabilitation Center, West Virginia
• Food Bank of Alaska
• Global Fund for Women
• Meals on Wheels of Eastern Kansas
• YMCA of Greater New York
Like many in the world of charitable giving, Stacy Palmer, the editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, was still mulling the extraordinary nature of Scott’s largesse, and what it means for philanthropy, and for women. “Women give more than men, but they tend to give slowly, maybe through bequest,” she said. “Women tend to be cautious — even very wealthy women.”
Scott’s “superstrike” flies in the face of these long-researched trends. “And as fortunes have become big, people in philanthropy had been waiting for women to make their mark — for it to be clear that a woman is going to set different priorities than a man might, and with substantial sums,” Palmer said.
Scott, now listed as the third wealthiest woman in the world since her divorce in 2019, joins a rarefied list of super-wealthy women in the world, virtually all coming from tech. Melinda Gates has led the charge and inspired her husband, Bill, to focus on world-changing philanthropy. Lorene Powell Jobs, the widow of Steve Jobs, has distinguished herself by investing in media (The Atlantic) and high-quality entertainment (Anonymous Content). And there will be others as the tech boom grinds on. Sheryl Sandberg, as well as Anne and Susan Wojcicki come to mind.
As Palmer and others explained, donations this large — tens of millions of dollars or more — almost never happen at this pace. Large-sum donors normally give to big institutions run by big corporate (and predominantly white) boards. They take years, if not decades, to set up.
In Scott’s case, her team often sent out notifications of checks to organizations that had never heard of her. Recipients said that emails ended up in spam filters. In moving so fast, so directly and with no apparent ego involved, Scott put the men at the top of the philanthropic food chain on notice, including the likes of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, founders of The Giving Pledge.
She also put her own ex-husband Jeff Bezos — currently the richest man in the world despite handing one-fourth of his Amazon shares to Mackenzie in the divorce — to shame. “Overall he has not given much compared to his fortune,” Palmer said. “There is longstanding criticism that he has not been as generous as other billionaires in his league.”
She paused before answering the question that leapt to my mind: “It’s hard to know if that is something Mackenzie was pushing for in their marriage, or just didn’t focus on and when she divorced decided to go do this.”
A writer, mother and otherwise not much of a public figure, Mackenzie Scott has not given interviews around her landmark action. (I met her briefly at one Wrap Oscar party and a couple of Academy Awards. But I would like to make a formal interview request.)
Scott inspires all of us with her bold, decisive action this year. Her words in announcing this action were both humble, and inspiring. She wrote:
Life will never stop finding fresh ways to expose inequities in our systems; or waking us up to the fact that a civilization this imbalanced is not only unjust, but also unstable. What fills me with hope is the thought of what will come if each of us reflects on what we can offer.
Though this work is ongoing and will last for years, I’m posting an update today because my own reflection after recent events revealed a dividend of privilege I’d been overlooking: the attention I can call to organizations and leaders driving change.
Bravo, Mackenzie Scott. You lit a bright light in a dim 2020.