August 2, 2021

American billionaire businesswoman MacKenzie Scott has been making waves of late—not because of her recent marriage to a Seattle teacher (since divorcing Jeff Bezos) but how she has been donating billions of dollars to charities and “historically underfunded and overlooked” groups. 

In 2020, the third-wealthiest woman in the U.S. gave away US$5.8 billion to 500 organisations, and this year, she donated another US$2.74 billion, believing that disproportionate wealth should not be in the hands of a few. The 286 organisations chosen were mainly women-led charities focusing on racial inequality, arts and education, food banks and Black colleges. Consequently, she has promised to distribute at least half of her wealth  (estimated to be almost US$56.2 billion) during her lifetime or posthumously. For Scott, this is only the start of her philanthropic efforts and helping systems in need of change. While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to giving, here are six things we can learn from her. 

Do your good deeds quietly

After her split from Bezos, many people wondered what she would do with all her wealth. Unbeknownst to many, she made donations to colleges quietly without any fanfare or a name. It was only later that the media caught on and reported about it. Scott said that she would rather give anonymously to organisations than make her presence known.

Help those who really need it

Scott regards the pandemic as “a wrecking ball” in the lives of Americans who are struggling, especially women, people of colour, and those living in poverty. And as the wealth of billionaires continues to skyrocket throughout the crisis, the income disparity will only keep widening. Scott and her team prioritise communities that lack access to philanthropic capital, including areas facing high food insecurity and racial inequity. Some higher-education institutions she has given to are those serving lower-income students like the Broward College in Florida, organisations focused on racial justice like Race Forward and Borealis Philanthropy and groups tackling gender equity. 

Give consistent support

Every non-profit organisation hopes that donors can give them what is formally known as general operating support, a grant that advances their overall mission rather than just for specific projects. The impacts are longer-lasting, compared to a one-off contribution, which helps to sustain their day-to-day operations. With this added support, nonprofits can become more resilient in a crisis, engage their constituents better, develop their staff professionally and deliver new programming. 

Let people do their jobs

At the end of the day, if you want to help people, you need to trust them. This includes the partners that you work with. In the case of Scott, she made 116 major, unrestricted grants that required no applications (whatsoever), affording these organisations a great amount of trust and freedom. Scott gave each of the organisations an amount and allowed them to use it on whatever they deem fit for their purpose. Trusting others to manage the process (without getting involved) may seem difficult, but it allows organisations and communities to flourish. Decisions move along so much faster since no one is nitpicking or causing any unnecessary holdup. 

Pick your advisors carefully

When such large sums of money are involved, having a reliable team to back you up is essential. Scott wanted a diverse crew of non-profit advisors from different races, gender, and sexual identity groups to help her find suitable organisations—those that had a major impact on a variety of causes. Together, they were able to conduct proper research and thorough background checks (anonymously) on the various organisations they intended to shortlist. In addition, Scott is working with a nonprofit firm Bridgespan, seeking philanthropic advice from them. While most donors have fancy foundations, Scott remains lean and light without an address or website, let alone a team.  

Money isn’t everything 

Scott realised she had the power to call attention to the organisations she was helping. Donating is not simply about giving money. It can come in the form of time, services or support—for example, your intellectual capital, influence, network, and personal expertise. Scott has emphasised how her donations are not just about money, but rather the intention and messages she wants to send out with her charitable gifts. Beyond the donations, she tries to spotlight the organisations and issues she supports.