MacKenzie Scott Keeps Donations Secret in New Giving Spree
(Bloomberg) -- MacKenzie Scott has upended philanthropy in the past 18 months with three blog posts announcing a total of $8.6 billion in donations -- among the biggest giveaways in history -- and providing the names of each recipient.
With her latest announcement, she’s changing course.
“I’m not including here any amounts of money I’ve donated since my prior posts,” Scott said Wednesday in her latest Medium entry, which was long on reflection and short on details. “I want to let each of these incredible teams speak for themselves first if they choose to.”
The former wife of Amazon.com Inc. founder Jeff Bezos has typically used the website to share information on the hundreds of organizations that received gifts as well as the total amount donated since her last announcement. This time she didn’t share the names of the organizations either.
Scott, who is worth about $60 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. While surprising the philanthropy world with the pace and magnitude of her giving, Scott has only offered the public glimpses into the thinking driving her decisions, typically sharing little more than a list of the lucky organizations.
In the new post, Scott, 51, rejects the attention that’s been paid to her as a philanthropist because of the eye-popping amounts that have garnered her so much praise.
“We tend to give more focus to things we can tally, and to rank everything else,” she said. “How much or how little money changes hands doesn’t make it philanthropy.”
Elizabeth Dale, associate professor of nonprofit leadership at Seattle University, has mixed feelings about Scott’s new approach.
“It seems she really wants to step out of the limelight and I think there’s something beneficial about that in the way it gets back to the root of philanthropy,” Dale said. “But it cloaks the transparency and the accountability that has been present in her previous announcements.”
Without information about the amount of money dispersed or where it’s headed, Scott’s blog posts serve as nothing more than a poetic reflection from an uber-powerful person, Dale said. “I don’t know if it will have her intended effect,” she said.
Benjamin Soskis, senior research associate at the Urban Institute’s Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy, praised Scott’s attempt in her blog post to expand the focus beyond mega-donations to a broader definition of philanthropy.
“The problem is it also undermines norms about the accountability of our wealthiest citizens and their philanthropic endeavors,” Soskis said. “The rationale that she’s offering could easily be offered by any donor that seeks to avoid scrutiny.”
Some details of the latest spree have emerged. Scott gave a $12 million grant to Global Citizen Year, which announced their gift in October. Another, Public Allies, announced receiving $10 million in early December. They were told that they could share the news after Scott published her blog post or after a certain period of time from when they received the gift, a spokesperson from Public Allies said.
Scott has said in the past that she was initially hesitant to share details about her giving. In her first blog post in July 2020, Scott said she decided to share the organizations she had donated to in an attempt to encourage others to give to them, too. She realized she had “a dividend of privilege I’d been overlooking: the attention I can call to organizations and leaders driving change.”
Another new West Coast philanthropist, Jack Dorsey, who committed $1 billion of his Square Inc. shares to charity last year, has opted for transparency, saying, “It’s important to show my work so I and others can learn.”
Dorsey, who’s the co-founder of Square and Twitter Inc., has given away about $430 million in more than 240 gifts in less than two years. That’s roughly 5% of Scott’s known giving over the same period.
Scott has been vague on other details of her giving, including how many people she has working on it and how they operate. She has said that her advisers have “key representation from historically marginalized race, gender and sexual identity groups,” and that they pick grantees “through a rigorous process of research and analysis.”
Organizations that have received gifts from Scott have shared similar stories in interviews with Bloomberg News. Typically there’s a call or email out of the blue from an unknown person saying something along the lines of “Congratulations, you’re the recipient of a gift from MacKenzie Scott.” Most of the time it’s the largest donation the organization has ever received and they’re told to keep it a secret until Scott makes her blog post.
Before today’s announcement, more than $1.6 billion of Scott’s $8.6 billion in gifts have gone to education nonprofits, colleges and universities, with historically Black institutions, two-year colleges and Hispanic Serving Institutions fielding most of the contributions, according to data compiled by Bloomberg News. Social assistance organizations, including Goodwill and YMCA, got about $1 billion, and another $1.2 billion went to nonprofits that focus on the business of fundraising, advocacy and philanthropy itself, including the Bridgespan Group, which Scott works with to pick and vet organizations.
Brian Mittendorf, an Ohio State University professor who studies nonprofits, said there are “lots of negative potential ripple effects” of Scott’s new lack of transparency.
“Scott is presumably getting a tax deduction for her gifts,” he said, which “raises the question: What is her obligation of transparency to the public that is helping to subsidize these donations?”
Her innovative approach to giving has also been hugely influential on other wealthy donors, Mittendorf said. Without details, “it’s a lot harder for people to follow that lead.”
Scott signed the Giving Pledge, a non-binding promise to donate the majority of her fortune in her lifetime soon after divorcing Bezos, the world’s second-richest with a fortune of more than $200 billion. Scott ended up with a quarter of the ex-couple’s Amazon.com Inc. shares following the divorce.
Bezos, who recently went to space for the first time, has picked up his philanthropy since stepping down as Amazon CEO. This year, he’s given more than $1 billion in gifts, including a pair of $200 million gifts in July and a $100 million donation to the Obama Foundation, as well as the latest rounds of giving tied to his multibillion dollar pledges to fight family homelessness and climate change.
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