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A Very Rich Woman No One Knows

January 15, 2021

The name MacKenzie Scott is not well-known. If one were to add that she’s the second richest woman in the world, even more blank stares would follow. It wouldn’t be until one added the information that she is Jeff Bezos’ ex-wife might people remember reading about her this past year. While the numbers are a bit mind-blowing, some may recall reading that Scott gave away almost $6 billion in 2020. The recipients, however, are even more mind-blowing. No big names. No wealthy universities. And nothing with her name attached. And nothing with any strings attached either, which is practically unheard of in the philanthropic world.

Scott worked tirelessly alongside her husband to start Amazon and while her share of Amazon’s worth in their divorce might seem paltry compared to what her ex-husband kept, it made her very very rich. But since her split from Bezos in 2019, she signed the Giving Pledge promising to give the majority of her wealth to charity. She has become very important in that she is charting a new path to give away her fortune. While some rich people create foundations, which are only required to give away 5% of their money each year and keep huge amounts of their financial worth to give away in dribbles over time, thus creating more legacies than help, Scott wants nothing left. While some gifts are made public others are not, so no one really knows how much money she has given away this past year. She has no fancy headquarters, in fact, she refers to a “team of advisors” rather than a staff, and her operation has no known address.

Two things to know: Scott has not created a Foundation to distribute her wealth. Her gifts have very different targets. She is working through a nonprofit organization in Boston that advises philanthropies, and her gifts are direct donations to hundreds of non-profits, HBCUs, community colleges, women’s and LGBTQ+ organizations, groups that hand out food and pay off medical debts. She made gifts to at least 43 YMCAs, and YWCAs which operate many rape crisis centers. Recipients get a phone call, or even an email telling them they’ve just been given more money – usually millions — than they ever dreamed of having to spend on their cause. Several recipients remarked that the first news of their gift ended up in their email spam.

The second important part of her version of philanthropy is that there are no strings attached to these contributions. There is no reporting, no site visits, or other monitoring. The groups are chosen because they are doing good work and she has made them in charge of deciding how they will use the funds. Period.

Three Maryland HBCUs were the recipients of gifts in 2020. Morgan State received $40 million and Bowie State received $25 million. The University of Maryland-Eastern Shore received $20 million. Wow!

Both the $1.7 billion in gifts she announced in July and the $4 billion she has given away in the past four months have been announced through posts she made on Medium.com. After July, Scott asked her team to work quickly to give away a lot more money before the end of the year. She wrote in Medium, “This pandemic has been a wrecking ball in the lives of Americans already struggling. Economic losses and health outcomes alike have been worse for women, for people of color, and for people living in poverty.”

Some are critical of Scott because the source of her wealth comes from the business practices of Amazon which made Scott’s fortune possible. Some feel that perhaps profits that had been more appropriately taxed would also result in a better distribution of this money. We really don’t know if this has affected her philosophy about her wealth and it may well be at least one of her motivations in trying to give away as much money as she can, and as fast as she can. But meanwhile, she has gone into the storied world of philanthropy with her own vision of how it should be done. Her work is causing some wealthy groups to think again about what they are doing to better the world. She certainly hasn’t made them look very “philanthropic.”

Hopefully, she will motivate more wealthy people to change the way they practice philanthropy – starting perhaps with her ex-husband, who lags far behind Scott in making charitable giving a priority.

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