Jeff Bezos’ ex-wife MacKenzie Scott gives US$4.2b to charity in 4 months

Scott promised in 2019 to give away the majority of her fortune.VIDEO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - MacKenzie Scott is giving away her fortune at an unprecedented pace, donating more than US$4 billion (S$5.3 billion) in four months after announcing US$1.7 billion in gifts in July.

The world’s 18th-richest person outlined the latest contributions in a blog post on Tuesday (Dec 15), saying she asked her team to figure out how to give away her fortune faster.

Scott’s wealth has climbed US$23.6 billion this year to US$60.7 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, as Amazon.com, the primary source of her fortune, has surged.

“This pandemic has been a wrecking ball in the lives of Americans already struggling,” she wrote in the post on Medium.

“Economic losses and health outcomes alike have been worse for women, for people of colour and for people living in poverty. Meanwhile, it has substantially increased the wealth of billionaires.”

Scott’s gifts this year approach US$6 billion, which “has to be one of the biggest annual distributions by a living individual” to working charities, according to Melissa Berman, chief executive officer of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.

Berman said Scott’s donations show that it is possible to give large amounts quickly without requiring nonprofits to “jump through a lot of hoops to get the money.”

The size of Scott’s gifts also disprove a common theory that it’s hard to deploy vast amounts of money without running into trouble or proving wasteful.

Sharing Results

Scott’s advisers zeroed-in on 384 groups to receive gifts, she said in the post, after considering almost 6,500 organisations. Donations were focused on those “operating in communities facing high projected food insecurity, high measures of racial inequity, high local poverty rates, and low access to philanthropic capital.”

Recipients include more than 30 institutions of higher education, including several tribal colleges and historically black colleges and universities. More than 40 food banks received money, as did almost four dozen local affiliates of Goodwill Industries International.

Scott King, the executive director for Meals on Wheels of Tampa, said he did not even apply for the grant they received. Instead, her team contacted the nonprofit, which delivers food to about 850 homes and makes about 2,600 meals each day.

“This comes at a great time for us,” he said. “There are areas in and around Tampa that aren’t being served and need to be.” 

Betsy Biemann, chief executive officer of Maine-based Coastal Enterprises, said it received US$10 million, equivalent to the size of their annual operating budget. It’s a show of how powerful Scott’s enormous fortune is, especially when she decides to give to smaller organisations.

“It’s an amazing day at the end of what’s been a very challenging year,” said Biemann, whose nonprofit provides financing and advice to small businesses and entrepreneurs, especially those from rural areas or disadvantaged groups.

Scott listed the names of the groups that received the money, just as she did for the 116 organisations in her July letter. In her announcement this summer, Scott said she decided to make the gifts public in part to call attention to “organisations and leaders driving change.” 

Philanthropy experts applauded Scott’s work not only for how quickly she’s given away her fortune, but also how she’s gone about it.

“She shares the results of her research and criteria so that donors of all levels can learn about organisations that are particularly worthy of support,” said Boston College law professor Ray Madoff.

Madoff is part of a coalition of academics, large foundations and billionaire donors urging reform of US philanthropic rules. More than US$1 trillion sits in foundations and donor-advised funds that could be unlocked for charity, the group argues.

Giving Pledge

Scott, 50, who was formerly married to Amazon chief executive officer Jeff Bezos, signed the Giving Pledge in 2019, promising to give away the majority of her fortune.

“I have a disproportionate amount of money to share,” she wrote in her pledge. “My approach to philanthropy will continue to be thoughtful. It will take time and effort and care. But I won’t wait. And I will keep at it until the safe is empty.”

This year has also been an active year for Bezos’s philanthropy. In February, he committed US$10 billion to issues related to climate change and last month announced the first of those grants, totaling nearly US$800 million to 16 groups. He also disclosed another round of grants for his Day One Fund, giving away more than US$100 million to 42 organisations that combat family homelessness.

Bezos, 56, kept three-quarters of the couple’s Amazon shares in the divorce, maintaining his status as the world’s richest person with a fortune of US$185 billion, according to the Bloomberg index. His net worth has increased US$70 billion this year.