volunteers at a drive-up Food bank in arlington, texas in november.
volunteers at a drive-up Food bank in arlington, texas in november.

When we first wrote about MacKenzie Scott’s $1.7 billion grantmaking debut earlier this year, we estimated that even at that prodigious level of annual giving, one of the world’s wealthiest people would make little progress toward fulfilling her Giving Pledge. With her net worth, she’d need to give away closer to $3 billion or $4 billion a year to make real headway.

Scott has now reached and surpassed that benchmark, at least in 2020. She announced her second round of grants yesterday in another low-key post on Medium titled “384 Ways to Help.” There, Scott details what led her to give away another $4,158,500,000—yes, you read that right—and how she and her advisory team went about moving it all out the door in just a few months.

In short, this round is Scott’s big commitment to COVID-19 relief. “This pandemic has been a wrecking ball in the lives of Americans already struggling,” Scott writes. “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.” Scott’s own immense resources attest to that disparity. Despite having given away close to $6 billion this year, her current net worth stands at $55.8 billion, only nominally lower than where it hovered earlier this year—around $57 billion.

Still, the mere fact that Scott’s wealth has decreased during this boom time for billionaires, if only slightly, is a testament to the accelerated pace of her philanthropy compared to most of her peers. She’s already moving money faster than the nation’s largest philanthropy, the Gates Foundation, which gives around $5 billion a year as its chief donor’s net worth only continues to swell.

There’s also a lot to like about these relief grants. Like Scott’s previous commitments, they’re for general support, paid upfront. And they explicitly target communities and institutions hard-hit by the pandemic’s economic fallout. As Scott notes, their focus is twofold: fulfilling basic needs in the moment, and attending to longer-term inequities that the crisis has exacerbated.

There are still plenty of unanswered questions surrounding Scott’s giving as an extended enterprise, and we’ll get to some of them. But one top-level takeaway is this: The super-rich really can move capital to groups on the ground as soon as they get it, even with so much of society’s resources flowing to the top.

The established and the experimental

This summer, Scott’s first round of grants benefited a wide array of groups working for a fairer, greener and more democratic society. They centered nonprofits in the United States but did include a global development element. Scott’s new COVID-relief commitments prioritize the U.S., touching all 50 states, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. While she lists all 384 recipients in her post, she doesn’t break them down by issue area or strategy. Neither does she give the amounts of individual grant awards, though some grantees have now made those numbers public themselves.

Diving a bit deeper, we’re seeing an approach to immediate relief that favors big-name networks with local chapters or offices, like Goodwill, United Way and YMCA/YWCA organizations. In terms of food aid, Feeding America and Meals on Wheels are the most prominent beneficiaries. Easterseals, which provides disability support services across a network of local affiliates, also fits this mold. In each case, Scott lists which local or regional entities got grants in addition to the national office.

Scott’s basic needs giving also extends to COVID-relief funds at community foundations, as well as relief funds designed to benefit specific populations, like the Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund. The list also includes several collaborative funding initiatives, like the Families and Workers Fund and the Center for Disaster Philanthropy’s COVID-19 Response Fund.

What’s interesting about a lot of these COVID response funds—both at the national level and at community foundations—is that they’ve been willing this year to experiment with direct relief in the form of cash. That’s one tactic Scott is leaning into with support to places like Give Directly’s Project 100, the Family Independence Initiative, Mission Asset Fund’s Immigrant Families Fund and GCIR’s California Immigrant Resilience Fund. RIP Medical Debt is another grantee with an innovative model that basically amounts to direct relief for cost-laden families.

Equitable rebuilding

Scott’s grantmaking around long-term inequities bears a closer resemblance to what she supported earlier this year. One highlight is a continued commitment to historically Black colleges and universities, this time characterized by gifts to institutions with smaller endowments on average than the six she has already supported. Some recipients quickly celebrated their grants once Scott’s announcement went public, with Virginia’s Norfolk State University lauding its $40 million grant as the largest single-donor gift in its history. The same is true of Lincoln University’s $20 million grant, and there are other examples.

HBCUs weren’t the only educational institutions to get funding this time. Several technical colleges, women’s colleges and community colleges received support, with a clear emphasis on schools where most of the student body doesn’t come from affluence.

In the same vein, Scott is also backing a diverse array of CDFIs, debt relief providers and other nonprofit lenders with equity missions. Some operate in the affordable housing space, like Enterprise Community Partners, while others are CDFIs, like Genesis LA or the national Reinvestment Fund. Some grantees provide loans for small businesses, often with an emphasis on helping low-income communities of color to access capital.

While advocacy and movement groups didn’t comprise as large a portion of these grants as in Scott’s previous round, they were present. Examples on the advocacy front include the Food Research and Action Center, Lambda Legal, the NAACP and the National Urban Indian Family Coalition. Legal advocacy groups like the National Women’s Law Center and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law also made the list.

Only a couple of grantees have a specific movement focus this time. They tend to prioritize women’s rights and gender equity and fund abroad, in some cases—a few examples being the Global Fund for Women, the Ms. Foundation for Women and the Urgent Action Funds. The movement-oriented Southern Partners Fund is also a grantee. Finally, we should note that a few grants went to philanthropic infrastructure groups. Hispanics in Philanthropy got a notable $15 million.

Due diligence

Scott included some detail in her Medium post about the process behind her giving. Aided by a team of advisors, Scott “sought suggestions and perspective from hundreds of field experts, funders and nonprofit leaders and volunteers.” Poring over “hundreds of emails and phone interviews, and thousands of pages of data analysis on community needs, program outcomes, and each non-profit’s capacity,” the team evaluated a slate of 6,490 organizations and eventually narrowed the field down to 822.

Then, Scott writes, “We put 438 of these on hold for now due to insufficient evidence of impact, unproven management teams, or to allow for further inquiry about specific issues such as treatment of community members or employees.” The 384 that remained received grants. At that point, it is Scott’s intention to “get out of their way.”

In some ways, Scott’s repeated insistence on the importance of deep-dive research and due diligence echoes the philanthropic strategy of late progressive mega-donors Herb and Marion Sandler. Due diligence sets the groundwork for trust, and trust establishes the potential for long-term general support. “Because our research is data-driven and rigorous, our giving process can be human and soft,” Scott writes.

And yet, for all the merits of her grantmaking, Scott’s giving apparatus remains opaque. There’s no foundation or official giving vehicle as yet, and the advisors she relies on are still a shadowy bunch. Then there’s the question of power dynamics. It may be a good thing to reduce the hoops grantees must jump through and to eliminate onerous reporting requirements in favor of trust. But the fact remains that these gifts descend from on high, often without warning, to the delight of recipients and the puzzlement, no doubt, of outside fundraisers. How does one attract the attention of Scott and her team?

A clearer picture will emerge when Scott announces her third round of gifts. Will they resemble her initial commitments, with their focus on equity and justice, or will they reflect this second round of service-oriented, COVID-responsive grantmaking? Will she adopt some combination of the two,or lean into policy advocacy during an early Biden administration? Or might she pivot to another issue, like climate change? It’s hard to tell. The pace may very well slow after the crisis year of 2020 has passed. But what is certain is that MacKenzie Scott has already gone a good way toward cementing her place at the top of the philanthropic food chain.

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