Rev. Jennifer Butler (RIGHT) and members of the Faith in public life senior leadership team. Gabriele Stonyte Photography
Rev. Jennifer Butler (RIGHT) and members of the Faith in public life senior leadership team. Gabriele Stonyte Photography

When MacKenzie Scott drops a new round of grants, it takes us a few posts to unpack it all—Scott’s preferred method of announcing her giving is through her Medium blog, which is documenting around nine figures and hundreds of recipients per post.

In a world where 95% of foundations don’t have a website, billionaire couple MacKenzie Scott and Dan Jewett are moving unprecedented sums, even without a foundation. It’s one of, if not the, largest philanthropic projects of our time, so keeping up with emerging themes in these massive batches of grants will be critical.

Her philanthropy so far has focused on racial equity and justice, public health, climate change, gender equity, and more. As giving has unfolded, we’ve explored Scott’s emerging role as the biggest progressive philanthropist in the United States, giving large, no-strings-attached gifts to organizations that are close to the problems they seek to solve. Many of these nonprofits are led by women and people of color.

Another thread that has emerged in her social justice funding is support for faith-based organizations. In her first round of giving, Scott supported Interfaith Youth Core, and in the most recent round, we saw a handful of grants for faith-based organizations, as she related in her “Seeding by Ceding” announcement: “Discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities has been deepening, so we assessed organizations bridging divides through interfaith support and collaboration.”

One of those recent grantees is Faith in Public Life, a Washington, D.C.-based, national network of nearly 50,000 clergy and faith leaders “united in the prophetic pursuit of justice and the common good.” It is led by CEO Reverend Jennifer Butler, author of “Born Again: The Christian Right Globalized,” which calls for a religious response to global culture wars of the religious right.

Founded in 2005, the organization has tripled its staff, quadrupled its annual budget, and established offices in several battleground states. But how, exactly, did the rising organization manage to cross Scott’s radar? And what does Scott’s support reveal about the kinds of progressive organizations she’s keen on? I recently connected with Butler to find out.

Crossing Scott’s radar

So far it’s been tough to say exactly what Scott looks for in the organizations she supports. In the case of Faith in Public Life, you might say the funds came down like manna.

Butler tells me she received a call from a representative of the Bridgespan Group, the Boston-based consulting firm that has been working with Scott on her giving. The caller asked a bunch of questions over the course of 45 minutes, and said Bridgespan was representing an anonymous donor interested in racial justice work, faith work and healing divides between religious communities.

The organization lays out its principles clearly, including that it is committed to “externally living out the values of racial equity and deconstructing white supremacy in a concrete way.” Faith in Action, another recent Scott grantee, has similar aims.

“I got off the phone and said to my development vice president ‘this feels pretty good to me. I feel like something’s going to come our way,’” Butler says.

Faith in Public Life later received a second call. And this time, Butler actually got the name of this mysterious donor. “It was just a very just-the-facts kind of briefing from someone calling on behalf of MacKenzie Scott,” Butler says with a laugh, admitting that it took a while for her to even register the name. Scott’s representative told them to send over a three-page report. The rest is history, with a gift coming their way, no strings attached.

As for the exact dollar amount, Butler didn’t provide an exact figure, but said it was in the multi-millions.

Galvanizing the progressive faith community

Butler is excited about these funds because she sees them as a chance to bolster the progressive religious community. In recent decades, the Christian right has dominated national conversations around faith and politics. And while we’ve written about the major conservative funding apparatus backing a range of education and policy groups, religious causes are also part of this push.

But Butler believes this is a real opportunity for Faith in Public Life to scale alongside other like-minded organizations and start to bring power back to the progressive religious community.

Not too long ago, I reported on Trinity Church Wall Street in Manhattan, the richest Episcopal church in the world. Trinity is also a major philanthropic player, with one grantmaking area focused on racial justice. Trinity’s Faith Communities for Just Reentry campaign comprises a diverse coalition of interfaith leaders aiming to tackle issues of homelessness and incarceration. Other collaborators include the famed Riverside Church, where the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. once spoke.

“People are pouring out of the woodwork, wanting to reclaim faith for justice. This is going to enable us to continue to make that happen,” Butler says.

Faith in Public Life works across three areas: democracy, justice and equality. On the ground, Butler is proud of work they’ve done in Ohio, for years helping an immigrant woman named Edith, who went into sanctuary. They’ve also done work around police brutality in Columbus, Ohio, which has a high rate of fatal police shootings per capita. On a national level, the organization is working to shore up democracy, protect voters, and prepare for the 2022 election.

“We’ve been building voter networks in the Black Belt of Georgia, in rural communities that are often disenfranchised and mostly African American,” Butler adds.

A new kind of mega-giver?

It’s unusual to talk about giving on this level without talking about exact dollar amounts. That holds true for Faith and Public Life, as well as Scott’s other 285 grantees this time around. Grant announcements so far have not included dollar amounts, just an overall total, leaving it up to recipients to decide whether they want to disclose. IP and other critics have cited this as one concern about Scott’s approach. However, Alan Davis, chair of Crisis Charitable Commitment (CCC), believes harping on this too much is missing the forest for the trees.

“I think there’s a tendency to pay a lot of attention to where money goes and how it’s given. Unfortunately, there’s very little attention paid to how much is given. And I think what’s important about MacKenzie Scott’s giving is the ‘how much?’ Last year, she gave 10% of her net worth. There are no rich people doing anything near that. And that’s what’s really important,” Davis told me.

Davis, who also steers his family’s Leonard and Sophie Davis Fund, launched CCC because he saw an urgent need for more resources for charitable organizations. CCC’s Charitable Standard aims to create a reasonable benchmark, and a minimum, for philanthropists to give in order to meet the demands created by the crises of our time. Not one to mince words, when I brought up the Giving Pledge, Davis called it “total baloney.” Instead, Davis created a list of philanthropists who were giving at a level commensurate with their wealth, with over 90 signatories so far.

“If we want to address society’s problems, we have two ways of doing that. One is, we could raise taxes on the rich. That would be the important first step. The second way is, we have to create a larger philanthropic pie that nonprofits can share. But wealthy individuals would need to give at levels that are commensurate with their wealth… Not only the past year, but over the last 10 years,” Davis says.

And as far as Davis is concerned, there’s Scott, and then there’s the rest of the field.

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