MacKenzie Scott’s unconditional gifts extend beyond recipients

MacKenzie Scott took the philanthropic world by storm last year with $ 5.7 billion in unrestricted donations to hundreds of charities. The seven- and eight-figure gifts were the biggest that many had ever received. At the time, few people understood the multiplier effect these giveaways would have or how she cast a really wide net. The many tentacles of his donations are ready to reach charities far beyond those who have received money directly from Scott.

Joe Neri, CEO of the Illinois Facilities Fund, had an idea that would be the case when his group received $ 15 million from Scott. Neri’s organization lends money to other charities. Most of the loans he gives help nonprofits make improvements, like replacing a leaky roof or building a new medical clinic.

Neri knew that his organization would lend a large chunk of that $ 15 million to the nonprofits it funds and that the impact of the money would eventually come close to a $ 75 million donation over the years. time, allowing his organization to help many more people.

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Scott’s gift is viewed as trustworthy capital by financial institutions, corporations, and foundations that provide loans. This means Neri can borrow additional money – in this case, around $ 60 million, he says – that his fund can then lend to charity. The money also generates income when charities repay the fund.

“I call it the gift that gives forever,” says Neri.

Another way that Scott’s donations extend beyond the original recipients: Many nonprofits that have received donations distribute some of the money to their affiliates or other small organizations. charity.

For example, Scott donated a total of $ 162 million to 22 subsidiaries of Easterseals, as well as the Chicago national office. Donations ranged from around $ 1 million to the $ 15 million the national office received, says Angela Williams, CEO of Esterseals, which helps people with disabilities.

The national office plans to use a portion of the $ 15 million it received to help some of the 45 affiliates who did not receive donations from Scott. For example, affiliates can request money from the national office to help fill a funding gap or update an existing program.

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Scott, 51, is a reluctant public figure. She did not respond to interview requests for this article. According to media reports, Scott grew up in a well-to-do household in San Francisco. Her father ran an investment company until it filed for bankruptcy in 1987. With family finances tight, she held several jobs to move to Princeton.

Scott played an important role but behind the scenes in helping her former husband, Jeff Bezos, make Amazon the global giant that it is today.

Since the couple divorced in 2019, she has garnered extraordinary attention with an estimated post-divorce net worth of nearly $ 60 billion. A writer whose novel The Testing of Luther Albright won an American Book Award in 2006, Scott has avoided speaking publicly about his philanthropy.

Yet true to his craft, Scott provided clear written statements about his motives in two Medium articles published in July and December. She explained how she selected the groups she gave to and why. She wrote that her life includes “two strengths” that she can use to help others: the wealth that comes from an “unbalanced” social system and “the belief that people who have experienced inequality are better off. equipped to design solutions. “

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Indeed, one of Scott’s most important goals for his giving is to help historically marginalized people by supporting charities that focus on racial, gender and social justice.

Scott’s $ 2 million donation to Borealis Philanthropy, a grantmaker that supports social justice groups led by people traditionally excluded from leadership positions is one example. It also illustrates Scott’s efforts to draw money beyond the immediate beneficiary. She led Borealis’ donation to the group’s Trans Generations Fund, which supports nearly 60 small charities run by and serving transgender, gender nonconforming, and non-binary people.

Many groups implement anti-violence programs and help trans and gender nonconforming people develop leadership skills. Scott’s money will help these efforts at a time when violence and punitive laws targeting trans people have increased, said Ryan Li Dahlstrom, who heads the fund.

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Scott’s decision to let the leaders of nonprofits decide for themselves how the money is spent shows that she trusts their expertise. Almost every charity leader who spoke to The Chronicle said the freedom to direct the money where it was needed most was the feature of one’s giving that mattered the most.

Scott exhibits a striking level of humility not typically seen among ultra-rich donors who have made their fortune in tech.

“It’s just, unfortunately, the pride that sometimes comes with money,” says Chuck Collins, a wealthy former heir who donated his fortune to charity in 1986 and now heads the program on inequalities and the common good at the Institute for Policy Studies. “Coming out of the tech world and the whole notion of disruption, I’d say she’s the big disruptor to mainstream billionaire philanthropy. “

Many leaders of nonprofits are hoping that other wealthy donors will take note of Scott’s approach and begin to make increasingly large unrestricted giving, explicitly acknowledging that it is the charitable leaders who know. best where to direct charitable funds to do the most good.

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“There has to be some recognition at some point that you have professionals in the field who are close to the issues,” says Williams of Easterseals. “We come to this job with a level of understanding and sophistication to get the job done. What we don’t come to the table with is an abundance of funds to do so. “

How much Scott’s donations help – or hinder – the fundraising efforts of recipients remains to be seen. Many say that some long-time donors now think their money is no longer needed. This couldn’t be further from the truth, say leaders of nonprofits.

“We operate on thin margins and the work involved is so important,” says Williams. “When you think of most nonprofits, they don’t really operate with a lot of money in the bank, so having a rainy day fund or an endowment is a luxury. “

Leaders at Walla Walla Community College, located in a rural part of Washington state, found a thoughtful way to talk to donors who might assume their support is no longer needed after learning Scott had donated $ 15 million. dollars in college.

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Jessica Cook, who leads the fundraiser, and community college president Chad Emerson Hickox, point out to donors that one of the reasons Scott decided to donate to the college is his track record of helping people in the community. would not go to college otherwise – and that it was their donations that made this toll possible.

“This $ 15 million is a remarkable gift. But that’s not the only generosity we’ve received over the years, ”says Cook. “I think it means a lot to people to hear this.”


This article was provided to The Associated Press by the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Maria Di Mento is a senior journalist at The Chronicle. Email: [email protected] The AP and The Chronicle receive support from the Lilly Endowment for coverage of philanthropy and nonprofit organizations. The AP and the Chronicle are solely responsible for all content. For all of AP’s philanthropic coverage, visit

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Sara R. Cicero