Yesterday, MacKenzie Scott announced her latest round of paradigm-shattering philanthropy—a fresh $2.7 billion for what she called “286 high-impact organizations in categories and communities that have been historically underfunded and overlooked.” It’s also her first round of grantmaking made in partnership with her husband, science teacher Dan Jewett, who joined Scott in signing the Giving Pledge in March.
The nonprofit sector has been anticipating this moment since December, when Scott committed $4.2 billion with a focus on COVID relief. At the time, we wondered what would come next—more grants earmarked for equity and justice in the same mold as last summer’s first round of giving? A re-commitment to COVID response and recovery? A combination of both? Something else entirely? We were also curious to see if Scott would provide more transparency into a grantmaking process that reminds us of the famous line from the “Wizard of Oz”: “Pay no attention to that team of advisors behind the curtain!”
Scott pledged to “give until the safe is empty” last July, and to her credit, she’s kept the safe wide open and the shovel handy, although, as the New York Times pointed out, her wealth is growing faster than she can give it away. Still, with this latest announcement, she’s granted a total of $8.5 billion since July 2020, running circles around even the most celebrated donors. Her latest post on Medium, the only public presence of Scott’s philanthropic project, reveals no fundamental mechanical or strategic shifts to her grantmaking. As with her previous announcements, Scott and Jewett are providing unsolicited, unrestricted and often very large grants to historically undercapitalized institutions. Organizations were again selected through what Scott describes as a rigorous—though opaque—data-driven research process.
A review of grant recipients finds Scott continuing her support for colleges and universities educating underserved students and front-line organizations advancing racial equity. However, unlike the previous two rounds, arts and cultural organizations emerging from the pandemic are big winners. Funding also flowed to organizations bridging divides through interfaith support and collaboration, anti-poverty groups, and social sector infrastructure organizations.
Perhaps most intriguingly, Scott’s Medium post finds the world’s most celebrated philanthropist subtly sharpening her critique of the prevailing economic system that has allowed her to wield such an unfathomable amount of power in the first place. Here are some quick-take reactions to the most buzzworthy round of grantmaking since Scott’s last round of grantmaking.
Who got what
Neither of Scott’s previous announcements explicitly mentioned the arts or cultural organizations. In retrospect, it seems like a strange omission, given Scott’s career as an acclaimed novelist and her penchant for citing Emily Dickinson and Rumi in her Medium posts. Her latest round of grantmaking more than makes up for previous omissions. I counted at least 61 arts and culture organizations among the 286 recipients.
Some of these organizations may sound familiar. For example, Ballet Hispanico and the Apollo Theater also are recipients of the Ford Foundation’s America’s Cultural Treasures initiative, which provides operational and general support funds to BIPOC-led arts organizations.
Scott awarded grants to 30 colleges and universities that are broadening access for underrepresented students. Amarillo College, a community college in Texas, received a $15 million gift, the largest in its history. Long Beach City College in California received $30 million, double the size of its endowment. Scott also awarded grants to advocacy organizations focused on helping those students succeed, like Achieving the Dream and Excelencia in Education, a nonprofit dedicated to Latino student success in higher education. Unlike in previous rounds, Scott did not provide grants to historically black colleges and universities.
Scott and Jewett awarded a substantial amount to progressive groups with a racial justice focus, including lots of Asian American and Pacific Islander groups, although there appears to be less emphasis on groups that frame their progressive work primarily around economic justice or democracy issues when compared to her first round of giving in July 2020. Native-serving and Native-led groups received support, as well, including Decolonizing Philanthropy, NDN Collective and Native Arts and Culture Foundation.
The pair also made strengthening and investing in the broader civic sector infrastructure a top priority. Many philanthropy-serving organizations got a grant—including Center for Effective Philanthropy, National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy, National Center for Family Philanthropy and several affinity groups. “These organizations, which are themselves historically underfunded, also promote and facilitate service, which in turn inspires more people to serve,” Scott wrote.
Scott revisited global giving, which was present in her first round, but pretty much absent in her U.S.-focused second round. Globally focused recipients include GiveIndia, Africa Leadership Group and Outright Action International. It’s also worth noting that six months after giving $4.2 billion in COVID relief, the words “pandemic” and “COVID” didn’t appear in this latest announcement.
Finally, it appears—at least for the time being—that Scott and Jewett passed on our suggestions to support organizations advancing the values of equity in the spheres of economic and legal theory, fiscal and monetary policy, trade and globalization, regulation and the battle to shape the judiciary.
A stronger critique of plutocracy
Another big takeaway from Scott’s latest round of grantmaking is that, despite her best efforts, she still can’t give away money fast enough. According to Americans for Tax Fairness, Scott’s net worth stood at $36 billion as of March 18, 2020. Now, thanks to Amazon’s surging stock, it’s just shy of $60 billion.
This puts Scott in something of a tough spot. Ever since she first emerged on the philanthropic stage, she’s had to walk a fine line in her criticisms of inequity, wealth concentration, and an economic system that made her $24 billion richer in the last 15 months. It’s becoming an increasingly untenable position, especially on the heels of a bombshell ProPublica report that found that major billionaires like Warren Buffett, Michael Bloomberg and her ex-husband Jeff Bezos pay paltry (or sometimes zero) income taxes, thanks to a web of perfectly legal tax strategies, including charitable deductions.
Her previous announcements found her tiptoeing around the elephants in the room. “There’s no question in my mind that anyone’s personal wealth is the product of a collective effort, and of social structures which present opportunities to some people, and obstacles to countless others,” she wrote, rather politely, in July of 2020. Five months later, when announcing COVID support, she noted that “economic losses and health outcomes alike have been worse for women, for people of color, and for people living in poverty. Meanwhile, it has substantially increased the wealth of billionaires.”
In her latest announcement, however, Scott employs more of the kind of language that we’d come to expect from a grassroots progressive or a university economics professor with a deep suspicion of free market capitalism.
“Any wealth is a product of a collective effort that included [people struggling against inequities],” she wrote. “The social structures that inflate wealth present obstacles to them. And despite those obstacles, they are providing solutions that benefit us all.” She went on to note that she and her team of advisors “are governed by a humbling belief that it would be better if disproportionate wealth were not concentrated in a small number of hands, and that the solutions are best designed and implemented by others.”
Scott’s latest thoughts on wealth generation and her critique of wealth concentration represent a subtle but nonetheless telling rhetorical shift. This is becoming more explicitly a project of wealth redistribution rather than charity. These perspectives will continue to animate her giving in the months and years ahead. It’s also useful to step back and frame these comments within the broader philanthropic and economic context. Warren Buffett or Bill Gates may ask Uncle Sam to raise taxes to support the common good, but we rarely see a billionaire mega-donor openly decry the very same plutocratic order that enabled them to accumulate such astonishing wealth and influence.
The process is still opaque
While there is a lot to like about Scott’s approach to giving, last December, we laid out some of our concerns with Scott’s opaque grantmaking process. For instance, prior to the recent announcement, we knew that she worked with a team of nonprofit advisors, some of whom work for the Bridgespan Group, to identify organizations to support. The 384 nonprofits that received funding in Scott’s second round last December made it through a due diligence process that she described as “data-driven and rigorous,” so that “our giving process can be human and soft.”
Scott’s June 15 Medium post didn’t shed any additional light on this process beyond stating that “me, Dan, a constellation of researchers and administrators and advisors” identified organizations, and that “like those we shared in July and December of 2020, these 286 teams were selected through a rigorous process of research and analysis.”
We know that the Bridgespan Group—which Scott listed as an organization receiving an unspecified amount of support in this round—continues to play a key role. Eduardo Vilaro, chief executive officer of Ballet Hispanico, told Bloomberg’s Sophie Alexander that he got a call out of the blue a month ago from a Bridgespan rep who told him, “‘Mr. Vilaro, we love what you and the organization are doing. We would like to bestow this gift to you.’”
Like her previous announcements, Scott’s latest did not list the amount of funding each organization received, although some of the recipients are enthusiastically providing this information. There is still no way for prospective grants to inquire about funding or get on Scott and Jewett’s radar.
It’s easy to see why this remains the case. If the comments section of Scott’s Medium post is any indication, she’d receive a steady and unrelenting avalanche of unsolicited requests. At the same time, it can’t be overstated how profound an impact this level of giving is going to have on the sector. Scott’s giving is blowing past the nation’s largest institutional funders, and many groups are receiving funding that surely dwarfs their existing budgets and the budgets of their peers. It’s worrisome that we still don’t have much of an understanding of how this, the largest philanthropic project in modern history, is being managed.
One last question to ask is an obvious one: Is Scott’s approach actually working?
The answer, of course, hinges on how one defines success. If that means providing historically undercapitalized institutions and those led by people of color with transformational unrestricted support, then the answer is an irrefutable yes. For example, colleges are using Scott’s money to build endowments, jumpstart fundraising efforts, and plug pandemic-sized revenue shortfalls.
But Scott’s other audience is the broader funding ecosystem beholden to a strings-attached and paternalistic giving model. In each of her announcements, Scott has implored funders to relinquish control and embrace unrestricted support. Her most recent Medium post is titled “Seeding by Ceding.”
“Because we believe that teams with experience on the front lines of challenges will know best how to put the money to good use, we encouraged them to spend it however they choose,” she wrote, a gentle reminder to other funders that giving unrestricted support isn’t akin to splitting the atom.
Are they coming around to her way of thinking?
It doesn’t look like it. A Candid and Center for Disaster Philanthropy brief on 2020 COVID-related giving found that flexible support reflected “only 9% of all dollars awarded to named recipients” once her grantmaking was taken out of the equation. The study came a few months after the Center for Effective Philanthropy found that 44% of foundation leaders were either undecided about permanently “making new grants as unrestricted as possible” (29%), or had ruled out the idea completely (15%).