Scott made that pledge in 2019, after her divorce from Jeff Bezos. At the time, her portion of the settlement, some 4% of Amazon shares, was valued at around $36 billion.
Thanks to the soaring value of that stock, Scott is accumulating wealth faster than she can give it away. Though she has donated more than $8 billion over the past 11 months, primarily through direct gifts to nonprofits, today she is richer than ever, worth some $60 billion, according to Forbes.
In 2020, a year of incredible need, Scott gave away nearly $6 billion to 500 organizations. Now, for the third time in under a year, Scott has announced a new round of grants, worth a combined $2.74 billion, demonstrating that her dedication to rapidly disbursing her fortune has not abated.
The latest grants will be distributed to 286 organizations including major universities, distinguished arts groups, and nonprofits working to combat racial injustice and domestic violence. Among those receiving grants — the average size was just under $10 million — were the Alaska Native Heritage Center, Broward College in Florida and Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Yet even as she disbursed her billions, Scott expressed some ambivalence about her fortune and the source of it, writing in a blog post that “it would be better if disproportionate wealth were not concentrated in a small number of hands.”
The wide array of gifts, and the manner in which they were announced, reflect Scott’s highly unconventional approach to philanthropy. Though her net worth now exceeds the value of the endowment of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest charity in the world, Scott has shown no interest in developing that kind of formal structure around her giving.
She does not have a foundation of her own, which would require detailed public filings and a potentially large staff. Instead, three times in the past 11 months, she has written a blog post on the website Medium, shared some reflections on philanthropy and the causes she supports, and announced that she had given away $1 billion or more.
While philanthropy experts applauded Scott’s generosity, the scale of her giving is prompting calls for her to be more transparent.
“MacKenzie Scott is a private citizen, but she is playing a public role,” said Maribel Morey, founding executive director of the Miami Institute for the Social Sciences. “Much as a judge has to explain their logic, or a senator has to answer to their constituents, a philanthropist owes it to the public to explain how and why they came to their decisions.”
Little is known about how Scott selects her grantees, and there is no formal method for groups to apply for funds. Instead, most grant recipients first learn of their potential windfall when they are approached by representatives of Scott, often from the nonprofit consulting firm the Bridgespan Group, and told that 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.
Since Scott does not have a foundation, at least some of her contributions are made through a donor-advised fund, a controversial vehicle that facilitates some charitable donations.
It is a pathbreaking approach to megaphilanthropy that seems designed to protect her tightly guarded privacy. Scott has not given a media interview recently, and maintains a close circle of friends and advisers. She did make some of her personal life public this year when she announced that she had married Dan Jewett, a chemistry teacher at her children’s school.
In her latest round of donations, Scott did not list the amount she gave each organization, but her blog post included a list of those receiving funds. They included well-known arts groups like the the Apollo Theater and Ballet Hispánico. Dance Theater of Harlem, which received $10 million, said the gift was the largest in its history.
Scott also gave to higher-education institutions including schools in the University of California and the University of Texas systems; organizations focused on racial justice, such as Race Forward and Borealis Philanthropy; groups focused on gender equity and combating domestic violence; and an assortment of other nonprofits including the Authors League Fund, which helps writers in financial need, and Afrika Tikkun, which works to end child poverty in South Africa.
And though in many ways Scott is upending how philanthropy has worked in recent decades, she also invested in several mainstays of the existing philanthropic community.
Like her previous public letters, Scott’s latest blog post was a personal reflection on privilege, need and responsibility. She said she hoped “to de-emphasize privileged voices and cede focus to others.”
In a break from the way many foundations operate, Scott said her gifts were not earmarked for specific programs. “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 said.
As she has before, Scott also included a literary reference, this time from the Sufi poet Rumi.
Scott appears attuned to the fact that her vast and growing fortune is made possible through Amazon, a company that has long faced scrutiny for its harsh working conditions and the myriad ways it has reshaped the economy, often centralizing wealth and power along the way.
“Me, Dan, a constellation of researchers and administrators and advisers — we are all attempting to give away a fortune that was enabled by systems in need of change,” she wrote.
Yet in the latest batch of grantees, Morey saw little evidence that Scott was attempting to use her wealth to counter Amazon’s influence.
“It’s really critical for any philanthropist to address the inequities of how their wealth was created,” she said. “If you want to have a leading voice in addressing inequality, you have to address Amazon’s profit maximization in the private sector.”
David Callahan, founder of the website Inside Philanthropy, added that while Scott was clearly focused on organizations doing work on the front lines, she had shown little interest in the think tanks and research institutes that often shape policy in Washington and statehouses around the country.
“She just doesn’t seem to be tuned in to that kind of stuff at all,” Callahan said. “That reflects an incomplete understanding of how change happens in this country. Change happens from the bottom up, and also the top down.”
Scott’s latest round of giving was less than the $4.2 billion in grants announced in December, which she linked directly to the enormous needs generated by the pandemic. But the $2.74 billion in gifts, announced just six months after that windfall, firmly establishes her as the most generous and influential philanthropist working today.
In giving away her billions so rapidly, Scott continues to chip away at the philanthropic status quo, which is dominated by big foundations with large program staffs that select grantees and manage the donations.
“Her main expression of that critique is giving away so much money so quickly, and supporting so many bottom-up organizations,” Callahan said. “She has this anti-elite approach to philanthropy. She’s not putting herself in the driver’s seat.”
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