Orhan Cam/shutterstock
Orhan Cam/shutterstock

Close your eyes and imagine for a moment that you have a nearly limitless amount of money—a fortune so big that it’s five times larger than the endowment of the Ford Foundation, which for decades reigned as the biggest grantmaker in the world. And imagine further that you’re profoundly disturbed that recent events 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 would you do as a philanthropist?

MacKenzie Scott offers a fascinating, real-time case study of how a new equity-minded donor with tens of billions of dollars is operationalizing this thought experiment. She’s directed an initial burst of giving, totaling $1.7 billion, to a wide range of nonprofits fighting for a fairer, more equitable America—and world. Scott gave more than $500 million for racial equity, another $400 million for economic mobility, and tens of millions for gender equity, LGBTQ groups, climate change, and more.

It’s not just the big sums that are striking. Equally impressive is how Scott—a novelist with almost no profile in the nonprofit world—has acted on longstanding critiques urging philanthropy to change to become a truly ally of equity. She’s given large, no-strings-attached gifts to organizations that are close to the problems they seek to solve, and are mostly led by women and people of color.

But with a fortune estimated at $60 billion, Scott is just getting started. She’ll need to give away billions each and every year to have any chance of fulfilling her promise to “empty the safe.” So where else might she direct her money to help build a more equitable future?

The choices that she makes will have major implications. With her vast resources, Scott has the potential to join a small handful of funders who’ve reshaped the philanthropic landscape in the past half-century—like the Ford Foundation, which built up a whole new infrastructure of equity groups starting in the late 1960s; or George Soros, who scaled a worldwide network of groups to defend the ideals of an “open society”; or Bill and Melinda Gates, whose vast giving for global health and development transformed those fields.

One answer to the question of what Scott should do next is obvious: more of the same. She should double down on the path she’s already charted, giving even larger sums to the kinds of organizations she’s begun supporting. Nonprofits that speak for marginalized communities have been persistently under-funded, especially those that engage in hard-hitting advocacy. Scott’s fortune is big enough that her sustained, large-scale support of such groups could go a long way to remedying these disparities, helping to dramatically scale nonprofits on the frontlines of the battle for a fairer society. Such investments alone would secure her a place among the titans of modern philanthropy.

Yet Scott shouldn’t stop there. She should also look to influence arenas of power that are often quite arcane, but powerfully structure who gets what in U.S. society—and who gets heard. Scott’s billions should be used to advance the values of equity in the spheres of economic and legal theory, fiscal and monetary policy, trade and globalization, regulation, and the all-important battle to shape the judiciary. Scott’s investment in people power and bottom-up strategies needs to be complemented by a focus on the kind of expert institutions and scholars that, like it or not, exert huge sway in a stratified age where elites call so many of the shots. Here are a few suggestions.

Fund More Policy Infrastructure

Since the 1960s, it’s hard to think of a better example of high-impact philanthropy than the conservative funders who scaled a network of think tanks, legal groups, policy journals, academic centers, and leadership institutes. The funders behind this push—grantmakers like the Scaife and Bradley Foundations—aren’t among the largest foundations in America. But they have keenly understood the leverage effect of investing in ideas and policy work. And they’ve been focused and patient, providing general support to key institutions for decades. These investments have played a crucial role in shifting policy debates to the right in a range of issue areas.

In contrast, as we’ve often written, progressive policy groups are persistently under-funded and heavily dependent on project support grants that come and go. It’s an old refrain that’s worth repeating: Despite all the liberal money floating around, conservative philanthropists have been far more effective at funding the policy long game. That explains why even a name-brand outfit like the Center for American Progress—the flagship think tank of the center-left—has a much smaller budget than its right-wing counterpart, the Heritage Foundation. In 2019, for the third year in a row, the University of Pennsylvania’s Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program ranked Heritage the No. 1 think tank in the world for impact on public policy. Over the past decade, Heritage has worked to translate the demands of both the Tea Party movement and Trumpism into an endless stream of policy prescriptions, legislative proposals, regulatory changes, and more—all amplified by a communications operation that gets Heritage staff in broadcast and print media multiple times a day.

The progressive gains of recent months show how much movement wins can influence the national debate. But converting that energy into lasting change requires nuts-and-bolts work by think tanks, legal groups, academics, and other experts steeped in the minutia of public policy. This stuff may not make headlines, but it makes a decisive difference.

Back Think Tanks That Advance Economic Equity

Scott’s grantees already include plenty of organizations working to boost economic mobility among disadvantaged groups, as well as labor movement nonprofits like the National Domestic Workers Alliance and One Fair Wage. However, think tanks whose missions center economic justice are less well-represented. Though she did back PolicyLink, Scott hasn’t yet backed places like the Economic Policy Institute, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, or Demos—all of which advocate for liberal fiscal policy and better supports for the lower and middle classes.

That’s important work in the best of times, and it’s even more critical right now. The crises of 2020 have laid bare many of the power arrangements that govern American economic life, and highlight the social sector’s ongoing failure to combat skyrocketing inequality. Scaling up the think tanks that now work to advance equity values in complex policy debates would be an easy lift for a mega-donor like Scott, given that the combined budgets of all the top national progressive think tanks is only several hundred million dollars year.

Given the source of Scott’s wealth, she might not feel compelled to fund groups taking on corporate monopolies, but there’s no reason why she should hesitate to help scale the few policy organizations focused on Wall Street oversight. These nonprofits are pushing to reshape the financial sector to end its extractive and risky practices and better serve the needs of everyday Americans and businesses. Yet, as we’ve reported, the top expert group in Washington working to tame Wall Street, Better Markets, has an annual budget of just several million dollars—even as it goes up against an industry that spends hundreds of millions of dollars every year to influence federal policy. Scott could help level that grossly imbalanced playing field.

Get Behind Progressive State Policy Groups

Progressive think tanks in D.C. need more money, especially if they want to hold a prospective Biden administration accountable. But so does the wider network of progressive policy shops in the states, which have long suffered from a lack of funding and coordination compared to their rivals on the right. Perhaps even more than the federal government, states set the rules for their residents when it comes to racial equity, economic justice, gender disparities, and much else besides. Yet, for a long time, the liberal donor class has ceded much of that ground.

State governments also have the power to preempt local laws. That enables, for instance, conservative state governments to strike down minimum wage or anti-discrimination laws passed by liberal cities. There are nonprofit groups pushing for more equitable policies at the state level, but they have a tough fight ahead as state and local budgets shrink and federal austerity looms. Scott has already backed state-based civic engagement via State Voices and the State Infrastructure Fund. If she wanted, she could double the resources of, say, the 42 policy groups in the State Priorities Partnership and barely notice it. The median annual budget of these groups stands at around $500,000 to $600,000.

Focus on the Judiciary and Legal Battles

The composition of the judiciary is another area where conservatives have a leg up on progressives, and not just because a Republican’s in the White House. Even (or especially) under Clinton and Obama, conservative funders poured money into places like the Federalist Society to strengthen the pipeline of right-leaning judges and promote constitutional textualism and originalism. Even though liberal analogues like the American Constitution Society exist, they’re much less well-funded and established than their conservative counterparts.

Donors on the right have also been adept at surging millions of dollars into legal groups working to dismantle equity policies—most notably financing a sprawling legal attack against the Affordable Care Act. This push paid off in several challenges to the law that made their way to the Supreme Court, including a case that knocked off the ACA’s mandate that all states expand Medicaid, a decision that left millions without health coverage, and by some estimates, has led to thousands of needless deaths.

A progressive donor with Scott’s pocketbook could help level this playing field, too. One option would be to spread the bounty across the vast collection of equity-minded legal aid groups out there, which Scott has already started doing via the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, LatinoJustice and the Campaign Legal Center. Nevertheless, that leaves the slow-burn challenge of articulating a unifying progressive judicial philosophy and motivating the next generation of judges to build their careers with that philosophy in mind. Investments in legal think tanks and law school research centers could help on this front.

Get Geopolitical

Even though they’re in the news every day, philanthropy hasn’t paid much recent attention to issues of globalization, geopolitics and international governance. But foreign and trade policy are crucial to the quest for an equitable United States. Whether it’s the offshoring of factory jobs, expensive foreign interventionism or mismanaged relationships with allies and rivals alike, the U.S. consistently makes questionable decisions on the world stage that limit its capacity to solve problems at home. Scott’s global development grants, as well as elements of her climate giving like a twin contribution to the Energy Foundation U.S. and the Energy Foundation China, reveal an interest in global affairs. One next step would be to offset progressive philanthropy’s inattention to globalization and trade policy, an area long dominated by center-right funders and policy groups, with devastating consequences for working Americans.

Oh, and how about funding those few groups still left in Washington, D.C., that push back against the U.S.’s sky-high military spending, which is now north of $700 billion a year—a sum that in recent years has been greater than all federal discretionary domestic spending (stuff like education, national parks, biomedical research, infrastructure, NASA and so on.) Today, civil society groups have little expert capacity to challenge the Pentagon’s claims about what it requires to do its job. As long as that’s the case, it will be hard to balance our society’s national security and human needs in an era of rising global tensions.

Study Inequity, With an Eye Toward Action

Scott seems more than willing to collaborate with other big donors, and even her initial grants—such as her support for Blue Meridian Partners—place her firmly in the ranks of the top billionaires taking on poverty. Although her support for movement work distinguishes Scott from many in that rarefied group, she could easily join more of their efforts to study poverty and inequality in the United States. Mega-rich donors like the Gateses, Mike Bloomberg, and Chan and Zuckerberg came together over the past few years to fund pioneering economic mobility research at Opportunity Insights, while Gates, CZI and JPB joined Ford to fund the Eviction Lab.

Equity-focused research can ground efforts to shift public policy, especially when it’s conducted with that goal in mind. Scott should back these efforts, and additionally join up with the Hewlett Foundation, Omidyar Network, and other funders who are engaged in a collaborative research push to move America—and the world—beyond the neoliberal economic ideas that have been dominant for the past few decades.

Organize Other Donors

MacKenzie Scott and her fellow super-rich have access to almost unimaginable wealth, but even their fortunes pale next to the tens of trillions passing from boomers to millennials in what some have dubbed the “great wealth transfer.” Progressive views are hardly universal among younger people, but they are more common. At the same time, current events are no doubt nudging many wealthy people, regardless of age, toward a more nuanced understanding of the role systemic factors like white supremacy play in our unequal society.

As by far the biggest newcomer to progressive philanthropy, Scott is already aware of the power her example holds. She could go further by getting involved in the progressive donor organizing world, which evolved in leaps and bounds after the 2016 election shocked many wealthy liberals into action. We write about these places all the time: donor organizing hubs like Solidaire, fiscal sponsorship and incubation outfits like Tides and the New Venture Fund, youth-focused donor organizing at Resource Generation, progressive intermediaries like the Proteus Fund—the list goes on. And we’re sure Scott has come across the Democracy Alliance.

Explore First Principles and Unifying Ideals

As donor organizer Leah Hunt-Hendrix put it for our recent piece on her work, progressives are now a lot better at articulating what they’re for rather than just what they’re against. But there’s still work to be done. Progressive movement building has been compared to “herding cats” due to the many issue areas, identities and perspectives involved. While intersectionality is a pillar of progressive social critique, a tendency to silo off different parts of the work has arguably weakened the movement’s political power and persuasive strength.

Scott’s grants to foster empathy and bridge divides signal a willingness to look beyond hard-boiled power-building toward a sense of common purpose that, for now, eludes the United States. Though efforts to bridge the divides of party and identity are in short supply right now, what’s also much needed are efforts to articulate common ideals and aspirations on behalf of a progressive movement that often feels splintered.

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Whether or not a Biden administration controls the White House in 2021, progressives are adamant that the liberal mainstream must be held accountable to equity and movement goals. The immense financial and social capital of liberal mega-donors like Scott gives them a great deal of power over whether or not that happens. The suggestions above refer to the 501(c)(3) arena, but the same holds for all the other funding levers big donors can pull.

Of course, when big philanthropy’s critics argue that democratic societies weaken themselves by investing such vast power in the hands of so few, they have a point. But the fact of Scott’s fortune and those of her peers remains. The age-old question is how to put to use this “product of a collective effort,” as Scott called it, in a way that truly benefits the society that contributed collectively to its creation.

Political thinkers often refer to eras of ideological consensus in recent U.S. history, beginning with post-war liberalism and proceeding into the neoliberal era of the past several decades. We seem to be on the cusp of a new era, its details still fuzzy. For those who want that new era to center progressive values, it won’t hurt to have at least a few of today’s biggest economic winners on board.

Further Reading: Powerless: How Top Foundations Failed to Defend Their Values—And Now Risk Losing Everything

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