Inside MacKenzie Scott’s “No Strings Attached” Philanthropy: “I Was In Tears”


Morgan State University, a historically black public university in Baltimore with roots dating back to the year 1867, has always struggled financially. That changed in December 2020. The phone rang in Morgan’s development office. A representative for MacKenzie Scott, currently the 19th richest person in the world with a net worth of $ 59 billion, had a message to deliver. Scott, the ex-wife of the world’s richest person, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos (with a net worth of nearly $ 200 billion), was making a transformative donation to Morgan of $ 40 million. And, unlike many philanthropic donations to institutions of higher learning, Scott’s money came without strings attached. Morgan could do whatever he wanted with it.

“When I hung up, I had to pick myself up,” says Morgan president David Wilson. “I was pretty emotional. I even shed a tear. Wilson says he plans to add 95% of Scott’s donation to Morgan’s $ 100 million endowment, which will help fund scholarships, academic research and innovative new programs, including work on equity in health and intergenerational mobility. “We’re not looking to spend the money right away,” he says. “We want to invest it over decades.

Morgan State is one of some 780 organizations to receive a portion of the $ 8.5 billion donated by Scott in three rounds since July 2020. Groups across the country have received funding, and in a variety of areas: public health, education, arts, race equity, climate change and economic mobility, to name a few. As a result, Scott made a strong impression on the world of philanthropy, even avoiding the spotlight and not speaking to reporters. She doesn’t appear to have an office or even a mailing address for her philanthropy, instead working through the nonprofit Bridgespan. While Scott publicly announces each round on Medium, the blogging site, she does not appear to speak directly to nonprofits. In each article, Scott includes a short essay explaining his perspective on philanthropy alongside the list of groups receiving funds. Its last round on June 15 was $ 2.7 billion distributed to 286 groups.

“A gift like this for a nonprofit is worth a billion dollars. ”

Scott’s June 15 post was the most detailed explanation of his philanthropic philosophy to date (“attempting to donate a fortune that has been made possible by systems in need of change”) and kindly criticized the media for paying more attention to their wealth than to the organizations receiving the money. The total amount of its donations in 2020 exceeded the entirety of the $ 5.1 billion in grants awarded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2019, one of the best philanthropic organizations in the world. Scott is a signatory of the Giving Pledge, a pledge made by billionaires to give away half of their wealth during their lifetime or after death. It all adds up, as 10 Scott recipients have said Forbes, to a new form of philanthropy and their hope that other major donors will follow Scott’s example.

Scott’s July 2020 donation timing couldn’t have come at a better time for Accion Opportunity Fund, a small business loan provider in California that focuses on women and black-owned businesses. A $ 15 million infusion from Scott – the largest donation in Accion’s 27-year history – was immediately put to use in a Covid relief fund. “A gift like this for a nonprofit is worth a billion dollars,” said Luz Urrutia, CEO of Accion. Forbes.

Accion’s Covid relief fund has proven to be essential for one of their long-time clients, Chief Reign Free. Two previous Accion loans allowed Free to expand its Oakland, Calif. Catering business The Red Door from a few employees and a pickup truck in 2011 to dozens of employees and a 5,000 square foot kitchen before the pandemic. But the red door had the carpet ripped from underneath when Covid hit. Corporate events, the bread and butter of the business, dried up overnight. Free was forced to lay off employees. The business was on the brink.

Accion’s Covid Relief Fund has supported The Red Door, helping Free pivot its business model. Instead of traditional in-person corporate events, The Red Door began providing food for virtual conferences by making door-to-door deliveries to Bay Area attendees. Free ensured Covid compliance while continuing to create signature dishes (like herb sliced ​​chicken breast and lime tart) made with local and organic ingredients by delivering personalized gift boxes and dishes. ready to warm up in the homes of each conference participant. “These are the kinds of stories that Scott’s grant was able to propel,” says Urrutia.

The ten association leaders Forbes spoke with saying that the limitless and ultimately more confident nature of Scott’s philanthropy is the exception, not the norm in their world. Instead, they say, big donations come with the understanding that the money must be used for specific purposes and programs. This system forces them to constantly fundraise and use a patchwork approach to fund their missions, rather than letting them focus on completing those missions. Scott alluded to his thinking about helping groups helping others in his last article on Medium, writing, “We believe experienced teams on the front lines of challenges will best use the money wisely.” Ultimately, says Urrutia, Scott’s philanthropy makes it seem like “you and your team know how to best deploy the dollars. ”

Like Urrutia, Favianna Rodriguez also works to help communities of color. She had a difficult childhood, she says, growing up in the 1980s as the child of Peruvian immigrants in the San Francisco Bay Area during the onset of the War on Drugs and the Era of America. mass imprisonment. His Oakland neighborhood was plagued by pollution and gang violence. Rodriguez found his escape from this environment through art, allowing him to express himself through screen printing, mural painting and making social justice posters. She thought she had found the calling of her life, but said there was a lack of opportunities. So she applied to the School of Fine Arts, but was rejected.

When she reached adulthood, Rodriguez says she realized that all parts of the creative industry – Hollywood, museums, dance, television – were run by white men with all the power and control. funding. So she planted the seeds in 2011 for what has become the Center for Cultural Power, supporting people of color working at the intersection of the arts and activism. But the moment Rodriguez was waiting for came two weeks ago, when Scott donated $ 11 million to the group.

“This is not only an important moment for me, but it is a moment for the artistic institutions led by BIPOC and at the service of BIPOC at a time when we have been devastated by the pandemic,” she said. Rodriguez is already putting the funds to work: $ 8 million will be “redistributed,” she said, to support artists of color in the group’s network. The remaining funds will go to initiatives such as artist grants that include full salary and benefits, support for LGBTQ people of color entering Hollywood, and administrative tasks such as hiring additional staff.

“My hope is that MacKenzie’s style of giving inspires the philanthropic sector and inspires other donors to give in a way that supports bold and big visions,” she added. ” We do not have much time. We watch the epidemic crisis, the economic crisis, the climate crisis, and this moment of racial reckoning. We have to speed up. We have to take a quantum leap.

With reporting by Susan Adams.


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