By Leslie Albrecht
One of the country’s most prominent philanthropists released an update on her giving, but didn’t say how much money she’s given out or who received it.
MacKenzie Scott, the former wife of Amazon /zigman2/quotes/210331248/composite AMZN -5.95% founder Jeff Bezos, who has publicly announced more than $8.5 billion in grants to nonprofits since the couple’s 2019 split, posted an essay on Medium on Wednesday titled “No Dollar Signs This Time.”
In December 2020, Scott penned a Medium post announcing more than $4.1 billion in gifts to 384 organizations, many of them grassroots groups serving historically marginalized people. She followed that up with a June 2021 post revealing that she had sent more than $2.7 billion to 286 “high-impact organizations.”
But in her latest letter, Scott, whose current net worth is estimated at $59.2 billion, omitted details and said she hoped media coverage would focus on broadening society’s definition of philanthropy. “How much or how little money changes hands doesn’t make it philanthropy,” Scott wrote. “Intention and effort make it philanthropy. If we acknowledge what it all has in common, there will be more of it.”
That’s why, she explained, she uses the word “giving” instead of “philanthropy” to describe what she’s doing with her money, and that’s also why “I’m not including here any amounts of money I’ve donated since my prior posts,” she said.
Scott argued for a more generous definition of philanthropy, one that’s not limited to describing how ultra-wealthy people like her use their resources to try to solve society’s problems. Simple acts of kindness between people should count as “philanthropy” too, she wrote, and the amount of money or who’s doing the giving shouldn’t determine whether society pays attention, she said.
“We tend to give more focus to things we can tally, and to rank everything else,” Scott wrote. “Why does one form of compassionate action, one group of beneficiaries, one group of givers have to be more important than the others? Financially valuable versus socially valuable.”
Scott said she’ll leave it up to groups who’ve received her money to “speak for themselves first if they choose to, with the hope that when they do, media focuses on their contributions instead of mine.”
The sheer size and speed of Scott’s philanthropy has indeed won her plenty of media attention, as well as praise from philanthropy observers. She topped Forbes magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most powerful women this week, ahead of U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris.
Scott’s latest update is “absolutely remarkable,” and also “inspiring and problematic,” said philanthropy scholar Ben Soskis, senior research associate at the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
Scott is acting as both critic and participant in philanthropy’s top echelons, he noted. In attempting to put the focus on the groups she’s giving money to, she seems to be pursuing a noble goal — but the size and influence of Scott’s fortune demand public scrutiny, Soskis said. Some of the grants she’s made are the largest-ever charitable contributions some organizations have ever received, he added.
“I want to highlight what I think is a problematic element of her post while at the same time recognizing that she has her finger on a really profound issue about the way that society allocates respect and attention in ways that mirror the misallocation of resources as well,” Soskis told MarketWatch. “It’s a bigger issue about who we honor, who we respect, but also who we scrutinize and who we hold to account.”
The Bridgespan Group, a consulting firm that advises Scott on her giving, declined to comment.
Scott was one of the most active and influential individual donors of 2020. Some see her as a trailblazer for handing out money with no strings attached, meaning that nonprofits are generally free to use her gifts as they wish. This style of “trust-based” philanthropy is considered to be a departure from the traditional power dynamic of wealthy donors dictating how recipients of their largesse must use their money.
Scott is also an example of a new breed of philanthropists who set their own terms for disclosing how they disburse their billions. While traditional grantmaking foundations are required to report their grants to the public, individual mega-donors such as Scott, her ex-husband Jeff Bezos, and Twitter /zigman2/quotes/203180645/composite TWTR -6.60% co-founder Jack Dorsey don’t use foundations to do their giving, which means they can choose when and how to reveal their charitable spending.
Scott, who signed the Giving Pledge in 2019, does not have a press team or website that lists her giving; she’s made all of her grantmaking announcements via Medium posts and tweets. Bezos has announced some of his grants on Instagram /zigman2/quotes/205064656/composite FB -4.23% , and Dorsey lists the donations from his charitable LLC on a public Google /zigman2/quotes/202490156/composite GOOGL -2.22% spreadsheet.
Brian Mittendorf, a professor of nonprofit accounting at The Ohio State University, said that while he understands Scott’s sentiment that too much attention is paid to numbers versus causes, he was disappointed by Scott’s move away from transparency.
“Another aspect that cannot be ignored is that these gifts presumably come with substantial tax deductions, so each gift she gives is effectively made in concert with the general public,” Mittendorf told MarketWatch. “The question is what obligation she has in bringing the general public, which is supporting these gifts, along for the ride. The attention she will get is inescapable, but the accountability provided by disclosing giving choices to the public is one of the few levers we have to influence billionaire philanthropy.”