Rhymeandreason/shutterstock
Rhymeandreason/shutterstock

It isn’t often that a novelist gets to dispense with $1.7 billion in less than a year. But that’s exactly what happened since MacKenzie Scott—formerly Bezos—began working with a team of nonprofit advisors to give away the majority of her wealth. And with a fortune in Amazon stock estimated at $57 billion earlier this year, she has a lot to give.

Scott signed the Giving Pledge in May of 2019, mere months after news of her divorce from the world’s richest person became known. In her comments on the pledge, she nodded heavily toward her identity as a fiction author, quoting a passage from Annie Dillard’s “The Writing Life”: “Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book… The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now.”

That piece of wisdom doesn’t quite track with MacKenzie and Jeff’s approach to giving prior to the divorce, which saw only a relative trickle of commitments from a couple already worth in excess of $100 billion. But now that she’s MacKenzie Scott, the woman often referred to in the past as her ex-husband’s wife seems to be walking a path of her own.

This week, Scott made headlines by unceremoniously publishing a list of the nonprofits she’s backed since kickstarting her personal philanthropy last fall. Both in total and broken down by cause—something Scott does herself in the post—her giving is already eye-popping in scope and elevates her to near the top of the funder food chain in many of the arenas she’s entered. But still, $1.7 billion just scratches the surface of Scott’s fortune, which has been growing by leaps and bounds as Amazon prospers during the pandemic.

From “We” to “I”

In a piece titled “Who Is MacKenzie Bezos?” published in the New York Times after the couple announced their plans to divorce, the tale of Scott’s background, her writing career and her public role alongside Jeff Bezos gets a decent treatment. Although she played a central part in Amazon’s origin story, “business wasn’t her passion,” according to one source quoted in the article. As the e-commerce giant reshaped retail as we know it, MacKenzie seems to have focused on raising her four children and on her writing, from which two novels emerged: “The Testing of Luther Albright” in 2005, and “Traps” in 2013.

When it came to philanthropy, the Bezoses kept things low-key relative to their exploding wealth. In addition to several eight-figure medical research gifts from the couple over the years, MacKenzie founded the anti-bullying organization Bystander Revolution in 2014. When Jeff Bezos finally sent out an open call for philanthropy ideas on Twitter in 2017, he didn’t describe the endeavor as a “we” project.

As late as 2018, it was hard to discern any definite patterns or ideology in the couple’s giving besides an apparent concern for the victims of hate and bullying. That pattern manifested in a 2012 commitment to legalize same-sex marriage in Washington state, and in an early 2018 gift of $33 million to TheDream.us to fund scholarships for Dreamers.

Just when it looked like the couple was finally getting around to large-scale philanthropy with the launch of the Bezos Day One Fund, the couple announced their divorce. What followed was a whole lot of tabloid talk about the end of a marriage and the assumption that grantee hopefuls would have even longer to wait.

Signs of the Times

That wait is now over, at least where MacKenzie’s concerned. Back in 2019, she wrote, “I won’t wait. And I will keep at it until the safe is empty.” And now, in the midst of historic national and international challenges, she said, “Like many, I watched the first half of 2020 with a mixture of heartbreak and horror. 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.”

Scott’s words and her initial grant commitments—along with the structure of that giving—reveal her sudden emergence as the biggest progressive philanthropist in the U.S., whether she would apply that label to herself or not. They reflect a new donor with nearly limitless means who is keenly attuned to the epic struggle now underway to build a fairer America and world. Her first round of gifts showcases a sweeping agenda that includes racial, gender and LGBTQ+ equity, economic mobility, public health, global development, climate change, “functional democracy” and “empathy & bridging divides.”

Normally, we might caution that Scott is taking on too many causes at once, even for a billionaire. But this is no ordinary mega-donor. If Scott is really serious about giving away her fortune, she’ll need to disperse at least $3 or $4 billion a year to start making any degree of progress toward that goal. She can afford to move boldly on many fronts at once, especially areas that remain underfunded. Tellingly, Scott’s initial round of gifts has catapulted her onto the list of top donors for nearly every cause she’s funding.

It’s not just the breadth of Scott’s agenda and the huge sums involved that are striking. It’s how she’s giving away her fortune, with an approach that channels a number of recent critiques regarding how philanthropy needs to change, and that demonstrates a willingness to back groups that most billionaire donors won’t touch. Here are some key takeaways from this first batch of gifts:

  • They’re unrestricted. According to Scott, all 116 organizations received grants that were paid up front and left unrestricted unless their organizational leadership preferred otherwise. “I gave each a contribution and encouraged them to spend it on whatever they believe best serves their efforts,” Scott wrote. Nonprofits have been pleading for more of this kind of general support for decades.
  • There’s a clear focus on equity. Scott emphasizes that leaders of color run 91% of the racial equity organizations on the grants list, that LGBTQ+ leaders run 100% of the LGBTQ+ equity organizations, and that women run 83% of the gender equity organizations. Racial, gender and LGBTQ equity are the prime focus for over 40 of the groups listed, while others include equity in their missions.
  • They embrace movement building. Unlike most living billionaire donors, Scott seems to have no qualms with supporting movement-oriented groups. From racial justice platforms like the Movement for Black Lives and Southerners on New Ground to intersectional movement funders like the Groundswell Fund, lots of these grantees back grassroots power-building, often through a clearly progressive lens.
  • Labor movement groups actually got money. In addition to community development organizations, loan funds and aid for entrepreneurs of color, “economic mobility” grantees included two workers’ rights groups: the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) and One Fair Wage. It’s rare to see living billionaire donors support the labor movement—Scott now joins the likes of George Soros and Pierre Omidyar on a short list.
  • Grantees often support multiple equity and/or movement priorities. Intersectionality is the name of the game among progressives these days, and Scott’s grantees reflect that. GirlTrek, for instance, organizes for both racial and gender justice, while SAGE fights for LGBTQ seniors. Scott breaks down the totals for her giving across nine causes, but not the individual amounts, nor where individual organizations “fit.” In many cases, these grantees operate across two or more of the listed causes.
  • Democracy groups have a new friend. The list includes a good cross-section of civic engagement and election protection groups like the Campaign Legal Center, Center for Election Innovation and Research, and the State Infrastructure Fund at NEO Philanthropy.
  • Collaborations abound. Joining funder collaboratives and intermediaries can be an effective way for big donors to gain knowledge and synergize with ongoing efforts. Scott appears more than willing to do so. The collaboratives she’s now funding include Blue Meridian Partners, Co-Impact and the Collective Future Fund. She’s also partnering with Melinda Gates to fund Equality Can’t Wait, a $30 million grand challenge to advance gender equity.
  • HBCUs are a priority. Scott gave grants to six historically Black colleges and universities: Howard University, Spelman College, Hampton University, Morehouse College, Xavier University of Louisiana and Tuskegee University. The Thurgood Marshall College Fund and UNCF also received funding.
  • COVID response is a theme. Scott gave to COVID-19 response efforts in her home turf of Washington state, to national grantees, and to international responses via platforms like GiveDirectly. She also supports a joint project between ACEGID and the Broad Institute to detect potential pandemics before they start.
  • There’s no foundation involved. Scott hasn’t yet created a foundation (or an LLC) to handle her giving, and it’s still unclear whether that’ll happen. These grants appear to be direct contributions from Scott, arranged with advice from “a team of nonprofit advisors” that includes the Bridgespan Group, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Empathy and Excess

When MacKenzie Scott (then still Bezos) signed the Giving Pledge last year, Inside Philanthropy’s founder and editor David Callahan discussed how she could avoid the mistakes new billionaire givers often make. By that rubric, she’s doing very well. Her collaborative, open-eared approach embraces equity, advocacy and big challenges like climate change. She’s moving money out the door quickly and seems to have overcome the reticence that long characterized Bezos giving.

Much more can and will be said, but it’s also worth highlighting Scott’s grants to promote empathy and bridge divides, which alone total $55 million and counting. Just a few of those organizations include A Call to Men (bridging gender divides), Encore.org (bridging generational divides), Facing History and Ourselves, Interfaith Youth Core, the Othering and Belonging Institute and the On Being Project. Scott also gave to both the Obama Foundation and the George W. Bush Presidential Center.

Champions of the humanities often praise reading and literary exploration as a path to greater empathy. Perhaps judging from the case of MacKenzie Scott, a self-described bookish introvert, there’s something to be said for that.

Still, the many hopeful aspects of what feels like Scott’s philanthropic debut shouldn’t obscure the reality of her wealth. It’s a one-fourth share of the Bezos ownership stake in Amazon, the bulk of which remains in the hands of a man who has come to represent the very systemic inequities and civilizational imbalances that Scott says spurred her giving. Scott’s wealth remains tied to Amazon, and right now, she’s in the same boat as all the other Giving Pledgers whose net worth rises even as they give away monumental fortunes.

When you have tens of billions to your name, emptying the safe isn’t easy. Nor is staying out of the driver’s seat when so many people and organizations come to count on your support.

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