Aug 6, 2020 - Economy

MacKenzie Scott redefines charitable giving for the ultra-rich

An illustration of McKenzie Scott with a gun that shoots dollars

Photo illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios. Photo: Jörg Carstensen/picture alliance via Getty Images

The extremely rich tend to think very highly of themselves, and of their ability to bend the world to their will. So when they start giving their money away, they tend to retain maximum control.

Why it matters: MacKenzie Scott, the ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, is worth about $60 billion. She pledged to give away substantially all of that money after she gained autonomy over her own wealth. Judging by her first 116 grants, she's doing so in a refreshingly radical — and humble — manner.

What's new: Alms for the needy was the starter charity. It was succeeded by professionalized philanthropy — a baroque edifice of foundations and perpetuities and strategies and naming rights and social impact metrics.

  • Scott's giving suggests a new model, one more focused on the value of giving itself, and where the giver does not try to influence the actions of the grant recipients.

What they're saying: "People who have experience with inequities are the ones best equipped to design solutions," writes Scott.

  • In practice what that means is that she trusts them to know what best to do with her money, instead of doling it out only within a complex framework of grant proposals and quarterly reports and two-year re-evaluations.

How it works: When Scott chooses a cause, she just gives them cash. No schedules, no promises, no strings. (Jack Dorsey's #startsmall initiative is similar, if smaller.)

By the numbers: Scott has given $587 million to racial equity organizations, 91% of which are run by leaders of color. $46 million went to LGBTQ+ equity organizations all of which are run by LGBTQ+ leaders.

  • She gave $133 million to gender equity organizations, 83% of which are run by women.

The philanthro-industrial complex did help: Scott was advised in her giving by Bridgespan Group, one of the largest big-philanthropy advisors. But their job was clearly just to identify worthy recipients — and then get out of the way.

Between the lines: The easy way to give away hundreds of millions or billions of dollars is to funnel the cash into architecture or endowments, rather than trying to get it directly to those who need it. Scott has avoided that.

  • "There has been too much emphasis on thinking about the future," says Benjamin Soskis, a philanthropy researcher at the Urban Institute. Scott's giving, instead, is based in "respect for people who are doing the work." And that feels new.

Yes, but: Scott is only getting started in her philanthropy, and the $1.7 billion she's given away so far is extremely impressive. Still, her net worth has managed to increase by $25 billion this year alone, thanks to the rise in Amazon's share price.

The bottom line: If Scott is truly determined to give away all her wealth, she's going to have to speed up her rate of disbursement significantly.

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