Billionaire Mackenzie Scott is giving her fortune away and turning philanthropy on its head

Ms MacKenzie Scott's style of charity is notable for giving "unsolicited and unexpected gifts given with full trust and no strings attached".
Ms MacKenzie Scott's style of charity is notable for giving "unsolicited and unexpected gifts given with full trust and no strings attached".PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON - In just over a year, author and philanthropist MacKenzie Scott turned the world of charitable giving on its head.

Ms Scott, the ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, whose divorce resulted in her gaining a fortune in Amazon shares that made her one of the richest women on earth, pledged in 2019 to figure out how to give away her billions quickly.

She has since established a unique style of no strings attached philanthropy, giving US$6 billion (S$8 billion) last year, much of it to groups serving people hit hardest by the pandemic and working to right systemic inequities.

Ms Scott, 50, made headlines again on March 6 when news emerged of her marriage to a Seattle science teacher, Mr Dan Jewett.

On the Giving Pledge website, which encourages billionaires to give away a majority of their wealth to charity, Mr Jewett wrote publicly for the first time about their marriage, and declared that he planned to join Ms Scott in giving away most of their wealth to charity.

"In a stroke of happy coincidence, I am married to one of the most generous and kind people I know - and joining her in a commitment to pass on an enormous financial wealth to serve others," he said in his post.

Ms Scott's style of charity is notable for giving "unsolicited and unexpected gifts given with full trust and no strings attached", as she wrote in her post on Dec 16 last year, when she announced that she had given US$4 billion to 384 groups in the last four months of the year.

"Not only are non-profits chronically underfunded, they are also chronically diverted from their work by fund-raising, and by burdensome reporting requirements that donors often place on them," she wrote.

Ms Scott said she gave these groups maximum flexibility, paying the entire sum upfront and leaving it unrestricted, so they could spend the funding on whatever they believed best served their efforts.

The groups that Ms Scott and her team chose to help were also departures from the norm, uniquely focused addressing racial inequality and other systemic inequities, and were the sort of organisations that did not typically get the attention and largesse of most big donors.

These included historically black colleges and universities, civil rights advocacy groups and legal defence funds tackling institutional discrimination, as well as organisations working on debt relief and credit and financial services for under-resourced communities, she wrote in her post.

Mr Dan Jewett, a teacher at the private Lakeside School, signalled his marriage to Ms Scott on the website of the Giving Pledge. PHOTO: THE GIVING PLEDGE

"Her high-profile giving was notable not only for its scale but also its approach and relative transparency," the Centre for Disaster Philanthropy research group, wrote in its report published last week.

"Her large grants to 384 non-profits in the US were unsolicited and unrestricted, with an intentional focus on organisations working in areas of high poverty and high racial inequity and with low access to capital," it added.

If there is one critique of Ms Scott's giving, it is that she could be more transparent, say philanthropy experts who note that she does not publicly disclose the amounts her recipients are getting. She is not required to do so as she is not donating through a foundation but through a fund.

Dr Maribel Morey, a historian of American philanthropies, told The Straits Times that Ms Scott's new marriage is unlikely to drastically impact her philanthropy.

"If anything, I would hope that Dan Jewett's experience as a state employee increasingly will encourage Scott to greater public transparency in her giving practices," said Dr Morey, a founding executive director of the Miami Institute for the Social Sciences.

Ms Scott's charity also takes place in a milieu of polarised opinion about how billionaires are able to accrue so much wealth in the first place, given the stark income inequality in America.

The Bloomberg Billionaires Index puts her net worth at US$55.8 billion, making her the 22nd wealthiest individual in the world. Ms Scott, who started Amazon together with Mr Bezos and was married to him for 25 years, received 4 per cent of Amazon's shares under their divorce settlement in 2019.

"I hope we become much more aware that there is little reason for us to fawn over or admire the uber wealthy in the Global North, including Scott, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, for example," Dr Morey said, referring to the world's rich industrialised countries.

"They are just people who have benefited - and continue to benefit - mightily from a neoliberal world order privileging the work and interests of white Anglo-American men in the Global North, over everyone else," she added.