Jeff Bezos’s ex-wife MacKenzie Scott is shaking up philanthropy, and while on the surface billionaires donating money sounds like a good thing, the practice raises as many questions as it does answers.
Scott was the 5th-richest woman in the United States as of this past December, her vast fortune being amassed following a 2019 separation from the Amazon founder which left her with a 4% stake in the company. Her net worth is estimated to be around $26 billion as of late last year.
Scott famously declared in 2019, following her finalized divorce from Bezos, that she would give away a “disproportionate amount of money” and to “keep at it until the safe is empty.”
Scott made headlines last December when she announced that her total donations had amounted to more than $14 billion since parting ways with Bezos. As NPR wrote, this sounds great. Her money has been life-changing for countless people and organizations. And yet, the money’s trail often disappears and much of the money is given “no strings attached.”
But as much as the scale, it is the style of giving that is causing a stir; it’s targeted at a wide spectrum of causes, without a formal application process and — it appears — no strings attached.
One such story comes from Katharine Williford, whose grant for $15 million was approved for her work with the Water for People nonprofit.
“We walked them [Scott’s team] through our plans, visions, finances,” Williford told NPR. “ Then after six months we get $15 million with no restrictions or reporting requirements. We even offered to send an annual report or an update on the funding but they said, ‘We trust you.’ I’ve never had that happen in all my years in fundraising.”
Citing this common practice of donating vast amounts of money from the shadows – Williford’s organization did not know the identity of their donor until after the grant had been released – skeptics are saying it is troublesome that someone in her position can wield enormous influence without being accountable for what happens next.
“She owes her fellow citizens greater transparency over the power she’s wielding. Scrutiny does not mean condemnation; it just means we deserve to ask questions,” a Stanford professor who looks at philanthropic practices said.
The NPR article looks at the topic fairly, addressing the fact that Scott’s engagement with philanthropy comes from a private source. It is her money, after all, and not part of a taxpayer-funded system
NPR noted that the growing pushback has not slowed down Scott’s efforts to distribute much of her settlement from Bezos.
It doesn’t appear that Scott has been deterred by critics, and in November 2022, she outlined that her giving was targeted toward “supporting the voices and opportunities of people from underserved communities.” In 2020, she announced that she had already contributed more than $586 million to causes supporting racial equality. Most of the initial grants have been to U.S.-focused initiatives, but some are international in scope like a $15 million gift to VisionSpring, a social enterprise that provides low-cost eyeglasses to workers in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
Williford and other recipients of the largesse were interviewed by a third-party team and the results were “dramatically and profoundly positive” for their work. One would certainly agree that getting gabs of money would be profound; the question remains who else benefits.
“Unrestricted donations in a vacuum is not the solution but the more that donors do trust-based philanthropy — building a relationship and doing due diligence — the more time can be spent on project delivery,” Williford stated.
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