Three years ago, MacKenzie Scott was an author, wife, and mother of four who’d started an anti-bullying group and, in the 90s, helped her husband launch Amazon. She kept a low profile—but then she divorced Jeff Bezos, got a quarter of his Amazon stake and almost immediately started planning how to give it all away. “I have a disproportionate amount of money to share,” she wrote in May 2019 when she signed the Giving Pledge, promising to give away at least half her wealth to charitable causes. “I will keep at it until the safe is empty.”
Scott has not only begun to make good on her word, but she’s doing so at a record pace and with total control over where her money goes: In a little more than two years, Scott, who is worth $57 billion, has given $8.6 billion to 780 organizations promoting issues including gender equity, racial justice, public health and beyond. She has done so without an office or even a mailing address, and with scant evidence of a full-time staff. Instead she works with her husband Dan, researchers and advisers from nonprofit consulting firm Bridgespan. She answers to no one, has no board of directors (that we know of) and, because she’s not making gifts through a charitable foundation, no reporting requirements, either. (In comparison, the Gates Foundation, which has nearly 1,800 employees, made $5.8 billion in grants in 2020. Scott distributed slightly more than $5.8 billion that year.)
And, crucially, she employs a “no-strings attached” giving philosophy, meaning each organization can use the funds however they see fit. “It empowers receivers by making them feel valued and by unlocking their best solutions,” Scott wrote on Medium in June.
“A gift like this for a nonprofit is equivalent to a billion dollars,” Accion Opportunity Fund chief executive Luz Urrutia told Forbes in July. (Accion is a small business loan provider in California focusing on women and Black-owned businesses; it received $15 million from Scott this year.)
Whether or not a $15 million gift is truly equivalent to $1 billion is up for debate, but there is no doubt that Scott is single handedly upending the model of how billionaires give away fortunes while supporting causes that look to disrupt the status quo and promote social justice. She is also questioning the system that put her into this position of power. “We are all attempting to give away a fortune that was enabled by systems in need of change,” she said this summer.
I have a disproportionate amount of money to share. I will keep at it until the safe is empty.MacKenzie Scott
At a time when billionaires like her ex-husband are blasting off to space, Scott is using her massive fortune to not only support nonprofits doing good work, but also to challenge the way wealth and power is accumulated in this country.
“Putting large donors at the center of stories on social progress is a distortion of their role,” Scott wrote in the June post. “In this effort, we are governed by a humbling belief that it would be better if disproportionate wealth were not concentrated in a small number of hands, and that the solutions are best designed and implemented by others.”
Many of the world’s most powerful women still have to answer to someone else. In the case of U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, it’s her boss, President Joe Biden. The president of the European Central Bank, Christine Lagarde, who is elected by leaders of the European Union, has an executive board (and governing council) tempering her decision-making process. Even Melinda French Gates, now a billionaire in her own right following her divorce from Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates, leads the Gates Foundation alongside her ex—but has stated that if they can’t get along over the next two years, she will be the one who steps down from the foundation. Meanwhile, Scott has no such restraints.
For these reasons, Forbes has named Scott the world’s most powerful woman for the first time ever. She takes the place of Germany’s longtime chancellor Angela Merkel, who is retiring from public office. Merkel held the top spot for 15 of the last 17 years Forbes has been publishing this ranking; the only years she wasn’t number one were 2004, a year before she became chancellor and when then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was on top, and 2010, when then-First Lady Michelle Obama was recognized.
“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, big visions,” says Favianna Rodriguez, who works to aid communities of color in Oakland, California. “We don’t have a lot of time. We’re looking at the crisis of the epidemic, the economic crisis, the climate crisis, and this moment of racial reckoning.”
With $57 billion still to give away, Scott has big plans to continue to affect real change and have a lasting impact on the historically underfunded and overlooked. As she puts it: “Generosity is generative. Sharing makes more.”
By Maggie McGrath, Forbes Staff