MacKenzie Scott is radically reshaping philanthropy

The billionaire is changing the charity game by prioritising impact over influence

MacKenzie Scott's approach to charitable giving revolves around speed and trust. AP
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MacKenzie Scott, the billionaire philanthropist and ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, has become a philanthropic heroine in the competitive world of fundraising. But unlike many of her peers, Ms Scott's approach to philanthropy is refreshingly unorthodox, prioritising impact over influence and empowering organisations on the ground.

Ms Scott's giving philosophy revolves around two key principles: speed and trust. She eschews lengthy grant application processes and extensive assessment, opting instead to identify and donate to high-impact organisations quickly. She also gives unrestricted funding. This allows these groups to get on with the vital work they do in their communities without being bogged down by paperwork.

Once you are identified, there are no hoops to keep jumping through.

She also has chosen lesser known, mid-sized organisations for her giving, thereby enlarging their circle of influence, ability to raise money and wider work recognition.

Verify, then trust.

The focus on impact is evident in the types of organisations Ms Scott supports. She prioritises those working on issues of racial and gender equity, economic opportunity, public health and climate change. In 2023, for instance, her nearly $2.2 billion in donations went to groups supporting early learning, affordable housing and civic engagement – areas crucial for building a more just and equitable society.

Further differentiating herself, Ms Scott embraces transparency. She publicly announces her donations and the recipient organisations, allowing them to use the recognition and potentially attract additional funding. This stands in contrast to the traditional model where big donors often seek naming rights or board seats, potentially skewing the organisation's mission and making them beholden to the donor’s wishes rather than what is best. This approach can have some catastrophic results, as some donors bring in the for-profit mentality to the non-profit world, thereby reducing programmes that work for the most vulnerable, as they are never able to become come self-sustaining because of the very nature of their recipients’ lives and circumstances.

This stands in contrast to the traditional model where donors often seek naming rights or board seats

Ms Scott's most recent innovation was the open call experiment conducted through Lever for Change, a non-profit that fosters prizes for solving challenges.

I have been one of the Judges for Lever for Change’s $100 million prize for Racial Equity 2030, and understand the thoroughness of their process and the research that goes into them.

This initiative with Lever for Change allowed more than 6,000 community-focused non-profits to directly apply for funding. Then, over the course of a few months, Lever for Change helped narrow down the winner. The overwhelming response, and the exceptional applicant pool – a testament to the need for unrestricted resources – led Ms Scott to double her initial commitment, ultimately granting $640 million to 360 organisations.

While the long-term impact of Ms Scott's philanthropy is still unfolding, her methods are undoubtedly shaking up the status quo. By prioritising rapid, unrestricted grants to impactful organisations and empowering them through transparency, Ms Scott is offering a new paradigm for charitable giving. This approach, centred on trust and flexibility, has the potential to revolutionise how philanthropy tackles society's most pressing issues.

Published: March 23, 2024, 7:00 AM