MacKenzie Scott sees the $59.3 billion she’s accumulated through her ownership of about 4% of Amazon stock as “the product of a collective effort, and of social structures which present opportunities to some people, and obstacles to countless others.”
On Tuesday, a day before her ex-husband, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, was scheduled to testify in front of a congressional committee investigating whether the company built over the course of their marriage has too much power, Scott announced nearly $1.68 billion in donations to 116 nonprofits, including universities, community development groups and legal organizations. Her giving focuses on racial, gender and LGBTQ+ equity, economic mobility, functional democracy, global development, climate change and other purposes.
Last year, Scott took the Giving Pledge — a program begun a decade ago by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, Melinda Gates and investor Warren Buffett — in which the world’s wealthy promise to give away at least half of their wealth, though many have seen their holdings rise sharply. Scott’s total, as estimated Tuesday by the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, has increased by some $22.2 billion this year alone, ranking her 13th on the list. Bezos, who tops the list, is worth an estimated $178 billion, followed by Bill Gates, at $117 billion.
Bezos has not made the pledge, though has separately announced several huge philanthropic commitments, including a $10 billion fund focused on climate change earlier this year, and a $2 billion fund – announced in fall 2018, before his split with MacKenzie became public in early 2019 – focused on homelessness and early childhood education. “The child will be the customer,” Bezos said at the time.
U.S. billionaires as a group saw their wealth spike, mainly on the surging stock prices of the companies they founded or own large portions of, even as most of the world suffers from a devastating pandemic and economic collapse.
“Like many, I watched the first half of 2020 with a mixture of heartbreak and horror,” Scott wrote in a Medium post announcing what she described as an update on her ongoing philanthropic work, which she said will continue for years. “Life will never stop finding fresh ways to expose inequities in our systems; or waking us up to the fact that a civilization this imbalanced is not only unjust, but also unstable.”
Scott added, “People troubled by recent events can make new connections between privileges they’ve enjoyed and benefits they’ve taken for granted.” For Scott, that means using the power of her platform, in addition to her financial resources, to call attention “to organizations and leaders driving change.”
Scott, 50, the author of two novels and who studied under Toni Morrison, said she developed her philanthropic strategy with the help of advisers, including people “from historically marginalized race, gender, and sexual identity groups.”
She sought organizations led by people representing the communities they seek to serve. “Driven by a deep belief in the value different backgrounds bring to problem-solving on any issue, we selected for diversity in leadership across all categories of giving, supporting vital variety of perspective and experience in solutions on every cause,” Scott wrote, adding that she attached no strings to her donations and gave the money upfront unless the organizations asked otherwise. “I gave each a contribution and encouraged them to spend it on whatever they believe best serves their efforts,” she said.
One of the recipients was the American Indian Graduate Center in Albuquerque, N.M., which received $20 million.
“It’s surreal,” said executive director Angelique Albert. “The fact that it is unrestricted really speaks to (Scott’s) trust in us to really promote racial equity and justice. It empowers us to do what is right for our community.”
Other recipients include several historically Black colleges and universities, Lambda Legal, the Movement for Black Lives, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the George W. Bush Presidential Center and the Obama Foundation.
Local recipients include the Seattle Foundation’s COVID-19 Response Fund and United Way of King County’s Community Relief Fund.
Some of Scott’s recipients overlap with Amazon partners and groups to which she and Bezos gave when they were still married, including TheDream.us, which gives scholarships to children brought to the U.S. by undocumented parents; No Kid Hungry, to which Amazon donates; and The Nature Conservancy, with which the company has partnered on climate initiatives.
As part of their divorce settlement, Scott, who was closely involved in Amazon’s founding and early operations, received about a quarter of the Amazon stock owned jointly with Bezos, but relinquished voting rights to those shares.
Mike Stevens, The Nature Conservancy’s Washington state director, said Scott’s $25 million in funding will support a program focused on helping countries refinance debt and protect marine and coastal areas, and domestic climate policy advocacy.
He called the philanthropic strategy she detailed “inspirational and transformative.”
“This really puts a new era of global philanthropy from the Puget Sound region on the global stage,” Stevens said.
Meanwhile, 2020’s overlapping crises are changing giving patterns.
“We have seen ongoing, generous support from many of our donors, and at the same time, unquestionably and appropriately, many of our donors are pausing in the face of how much uncertainty there is right now,” Stevens said.
He added that many donors are focusing on immediate needs stemming from the pandemic and civil rights movement, giving to front-line organizations focused on housing, food security, health and criminal justice reform. Many communities suffering the most today are also at higher risk from the impacts of climate change, Stevens said. “Donors understand that,” he said.
Chuck Collins, co-author of a new report from the progressive Institute for Policy Studies, Gilded Giving 2020: How Wealth Inequality Distorts Philanthropy and Imperils Democracy, called Scott’s strategy a model, particularly in comparison to increasingly self-interested philanthropy.
“Instead of warehousing wealth in a private foundation or donor-advised fund” – a type of tax-advantaged investment vehicle with lax requirements on charitable distributions – “she is moving funds directly to working charities on the ground,” he said. “Many other Giving Pledge members could learn from her actions and willingness to let go of control.”
In the report, released Tuesday evening, Collins and co-author Helen Flannery warn of the risks inherent in a shift in philanthropy away from small-dollar donations to “ultra-wealthy mega-donors.”
“The giving sector is increasingly becoming a tax-subsidized province of the wealthy, who exercise considerable private power over the nonprofit sector and civic life as a whole,” they wrote. “Without intervention, billionaire philanthropists will soon be shaping public policy in competition with local and state governments, which will be facing austerity conditions in the wake of a resurgent Covid-19 pandemic.”
They called for Congress to enact a three-year emergency charity stimulus mandate, requiring private foundations to increase their annual payout to 10% a year, double the current requirement, and enacting a temporary 10% payout requirement for donor-advised funds.
Editor’s note: The Seattle Foundation and Solutions Journalism Network, another recipient of Scott’s philanthropy, are partners of The Seattle Times’ community funded journalism initiatives.
Seattle Times staff reporter Nicole Brodeur contributed to this report.