It’s official: MacKenzie Scott is the world’s most powerful woman. At least, that’s according to Forbes, which just awarded Scott first place in its 2021 reckoning of the world’s 100 most powerful women. (She beat out Kamala Harris, European Central Bank head Christine Lagarde, GM CEO Mary Barra and Melinda French Gates for the top spot.)
In what may or may not be a coincidence, Scott also dropped another long-awaited Medium post yesterday. But this time, there were no dollar signs involved. Instead, Scott opined on the “semantic narrowing” of the word “philanthropy”—in the sense of big gifts from big givers like herself—and went to bat for a more expansive concept of “love of humankind.” That is, one that includes things like small, charitable gifts, mutual aid, women’s unpaid labor, and calling for change with one’s voice rather than one’s money.
These are noble sentiments, worthy of further and continued discussion. But closer to the end of her post, Scott also exercised her right to something the big donor class is taking greater and greater advantage of these days: a lack of transparency.
As is her custom, Scott’s words downplayed the power she wields. “It’s also why I’m not including here any amounts of money I’ve donated since my prior posts,” she wrote. “I want to let each of these incredible teams speak for themselves first if they choose to, with the hope that when they do, media focuses on their contributions instead of mine.”
We have no reason to doubt Scott’s sincerity in wanting to lift up her grantees. But still, what we have here is even less disclosure from an apex donor whose giving, groundbreaking as it is, has also been much more opaque and less accessible than it could have been. It’s possible we’ll still see a massive grantee drop from Scott after recipients have had time to disclose “if they choose to.” But who knows?
The growing problem of big-donor opacity and selective disclosure was the subject of a pointed take last week from Theodore Schleifer at Puck (formerly of Vox’s Recode). In his piece, Schleifer bemoans a trend we’ve been seeing for years now—increasingly blurred lines between philanthropic and political giving, especially from left-leaning major donors whose shadow giving now equals or surpasses that of their rivals on the right.
To be clear, Schleifer’s focus was primarily on how these newly aggressive and nameless liberal donors are using tax-exempt (and non-tax-exempt) donations to influence elections and the electoral landscape. From what we know, Scott’s giving project—though politically progressive in many respects—only touches that area directly in a handful of cases. Still, what we know is what she has chosen to tell us, or has allowed her grantees to reveal.
Whatever their ideological bent, big donors’ expansive view of their right to privacy is a threat to the health of American democracy. It also throws doubt on whether philanthropy, long cherished as distinct from the muddy battlefield of politics, can remain in the public’s good graces much longer.
At the same time, while it may be the case that “the line between philanthropy and politics has been obliterated,” to use Schleifer’s framing, politics isn’t the only dimension in philanthropy’s growing embrace of dark money. There’s a lot more going on.
For one thing, just as not all political money is dark, not all dark money is political. Though the pejorative has long referred to political or politics-adjacent opaque donations, a lack of transparency plagues the sector at large, whether there’s a political dimension or not. Until now, Scott’s donations haven’t quite fit that bill—she’s volunteered the names of her recipients (or maybe just some of them, because who knows?). But if her latest blog post marks the end of that practice, you could accurately call her giving a kind of dark money. Is that a look Scott wants?
Donor-advised funds are another source of gathering darkness. Opaque DAF gifts for policy advocacy get the most criticism, but the quantity of money flowing through entities like Fidelity Charitable—the nation’s largest grantmaker—means we have a woefully incomplete picture of who’s giving to what.
The same goes for foundation funding, reported eventually via 990s, but only after a substantial time delay that makes it next to impossible to get a full reading on how foundations are responding in the moment to historic upheavals like the 2016 election or COVID-19. And finally, let’s not forget that big donors don’t need foundations, LLCs, DAFs or any other separate giving vehicle—they can just cut tax-deductible checks to nonprofits directly, with little or no transparency requirements to speak of.
The point is that however they’re deploying their cash, nonprofit funders have broad leeway to keep their giving secret and to fine-tune that secrecy to fit their preferences. Such is the nature of a system that favors donor privacy and what has been labeled “philanthropic freedom” above the public’s right to know who’s shaping the public square behind the scenes.
While Schleifer accurately observes that this growing philanthropic darkness is an open invitation for conspiracy theorists to ply their trade, we know there’s no actual conspiracy, no secret cabal, no smoke-filled room. The reality is far more mundane, but perhaps just as dangerous. It’s the fact that privacy in all its forms is one of the many privileges we extend to the rich, and it’s a privilege they’ll take advantage of unless otherwise obligated by law.
If we take Scott at her word, this decision to retreat on transparency came from a desire to cede the spotlight, not from some plutocrat’s privacy instinct. But I’d argue that being more transparent, not less, is a better way to cede power, a way to give up a characteristic privilege of the rich and truly join ranks with nonprofit leaders who don’t have the luxury of retreating into anonymity whenever and however they choose.
Here’s to hoping Scott does reveal these latest grants—we’ve been waiting with bated breath!—and reconsiders this experiment with the dark side.
However you cut it, having over $60 billion to give away is a power few possess. And the only way to relinquish that power, paradoxically, is to exercise it. Having already begun in such newsworthy fashion, Scott should continue in an open and transparent way. In addition to being the right thing to do, it’ll further burnish her already considerable reputation.
The media will talk about the philanthropy of Forbes’ most powerful woman either way. Publicizing her grantees ensures the conversation around this progressive billionaire will center on where the money’s actually going rather than where it might be going. After all, that trove of liberal dark money has to be coming from somewhere.