MacKenzie Scott reveals another $2.74 billion in giving

  • >>Nicholas Kulish and David Gelles, The New York Times
    Published: 2021-06-15 23:05:28 BdST

MacKenzie Scott, one of the richest women in the world, forged ahead with her highly unconventional approach to philanthropy on Tuesday, using a blog post to announce that she and her husband, Dan Jewett, had given away $2.74 billion to 286 organisations including arts nonprofits and groups working to combat racial discrimination.

Scott was married to Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, for 25 years. When they divorced in 2019, her share of the settlement, 4% of Amazon’s stock, was valued around $36 billion. Despite the huge sums she has given away since then — the latest round brings her total to more than $8 billion — her wealth has only continued to grow, thanks to Amazon’s soaring stock price. Forbes’ most recent estimate of her net worth was roughly $60 billion.

Though Scott did not list the amount she gave each organisation, her blog post included a list of those receiving funds. They included well-known arts groups such as the Apollo Theater and Ballet Hispánico; higher education institutions including schools in the University of California and the University of Texas systems; organisations focused on racial justice, such as Race Forward and Borealis Philanthropy; and groups focused on empowering women and combating domestic violence.

When Scott promised in 2019 to give “until the safe was empty,” people had little reason to take her at her word. Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett — many of the world’s wealthiest — have made lofty promises of giving and each is richer now than ever before.

In a year of incredible need, Scott gave away nearly $6 billion to 500 organisations in 2020. But the surging stock market and her sizable stake in Amazon meant that she ended the year with more money than she started it.

Her latest round of giving was less than the $4.2 billion in grants that Scott announced in December, which she linked directly to the enormous needs generated by the pandemic, but still an enormous amount on par with the annual grants of some of the nation’s largest foundations.

Now for the third time in under a year, Scott has announced a multibillion-dollar round of grants, demonstrating that her dedication to rapidly dispersing her fortune has not abated.

At a time when the lack of taxes paid by the ultrawealthy has occupied a growing space in the national discourse, more and more attention has focused on the benefits that billionaires like Buffett and Gates accrue from their philanthropic giving. The two men, who along with Melinda French Gates, co-founded the Giving Pledge and together fund the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are the richest they have ever been.

“Most billionaire philanthropists accumulate wealth faster than they give it away. It’s true even for the big-time proponents of giving, like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett,” said David Callahan, founder of the website Inside Philanthropy. “MacKenzie Scott seems to be somebody who actually is interested in giving away her money faster than she makes it.”

In many ways, what Scott is doing is simple: She has said that she has way too much money, and she’s giving it to groups that can help people with way too little. In other ways her giving has always been transformative.

Modern philanthropy had been a field dominated by would-be oracular men. Their successes, especially in the field of technology, meant that they saw themselves as repositories of wisdom as well as cash. They knew how to reform the schools and shelter the poor, cure the diseases, and the professionals in those fields needed coaching, direction and key-performance indicators to prove they were trying hard enough and, perhaps just as important, doing it the right way.

MacKenzie Bezos, right, and Jeff Bezos arrive to the Vanity Fair Oscar party in Beverly Hills, Calif, on Mar 4, 2018. Her divorce from the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has made this novelist, and her private life, a public fascination. The New York Times

MacKenzie Bezos, right, and Jeff Bezos arrive to the Vanity Fair Oscar party in Beverly Hills, Calif, on Mar 4, 2018. Her divorce from the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has made this novelist, and her private life, a public fascination. The New York Times

It is also a sign of how far the balance of power has tilted toward the ultra-wealthy that the Ford Foundation has to go to the markets and issue bonds to give an extra $1 billion in a year, where Scott can give more than that semi-annually as a matter of course.

The philanthropic world largely celebrated Scott’s giving last year, and still does. But the source of the wealth, given questions about Amazon’s labour and environmental practices, is troubling to some.

“You want to congratulate MacKenzie Scott for supporting groups that don’t necessarily get funding to do the work that they do, but at the same time should we genuflect before this giving, knowing where the wealth came from?” said Maribel Morey, founding executive director of the Miami Institute for the Social Sciences. “Do we really need to have this whole applause?”

Scott has become famous in a unique way. She does not pose for Instagram photos or have a following on TikTok. But the ups and downs of her private life have been closely tracked, starting with the announcement of her split from Bezos.

When she announced earlier this year that she had remarried, to a chemistry teacher at her children’s school, it seemed to reinforce a narrative that she was the grounded half of what was once the richest couple on earth. (The fact that her ex-husband, Bezos, plans to blast off the planet in one of his rockets has only served to perpetuate those assumptions.)

A pattern has emerged behind her giving. Representatives, often from the nonprofit consulting firm the Bridgespan Group, quietly approach grant recipients who are told they are under consideration for a substantial sum from an anonymous giver. They are sworn to secrecy at first but are allowed to talk about the money once Scott’s latest letter is posted to the website Medium.

Her words from her first Medium post last year seem prescient in light of the recent ProPublica investigation on ultra-billionaires paying little or nothing in taxes: “Life will never stop finding fresh ways to expose inequities in our systems; or waking us up to the fact that a civilisation this imbalanced is not only unjust, but also unstable.”

She emphasised flexibility in giving, encouraging groups to “spend it on whatever they believe best serves their efforts.” The money was paid up front and provided as unrestricted funds “to provide them with maximum flexibility.”

Many foundations treat a 5% payout threshold as a target rather than the legal minimum that it is. The goal is the perpetuity of the institution, protecting the endowment over giving the money away. The laws as written don’t even require any payouts from increasingly popular donor-advised funds.

Scott’s giving implicitly says, you can just give it away.

But a Medium post is not the same as a mandatory disclosure, and the degree to which she can share whatever information she wants, when she wants, has also raised concerns.

“The lack of transparency speaks to a larger problem in the sector. These billionaire philanthropists have so much power, but transparency is totally voluntary in our regulatory regime,” Callahan said. “She could have given away all of this money anonymously if she wanted to.”

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