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McKenzie Scott is the ex-wife of Jeff Bezos. She was at his side when he founded Amazon and was the company’s first accountant. She played a role in the success of the company. When they divorced (he left her for another woman), McKenzie received a share of his Amazon stock. She is now one of the richest people in the world. The Bloomberg Billionaires Index ranks her as the 18th richest person in the world, right behind Alice Walton, with a net worth (on Tuesday) of of $62.4 billion (Jeff Bezos is the richest person in the world, with a net worth of $189 billion).
In a better world, there would be no billionaires. Everyone would pay a fair share of their income and wealth in taxes, and there would be no extremes of wealth or poverty. The rich would still be richer than everyone else, but not obscenely rich, with billions that they could never spend in ten lifetimes.
McKenzie Scott is giving away more than any other billionaire. Last week, she revealed that she had given away $4.1 billion to more than 384 organizations in every state and Puerto Rico. Advised by a team, she selected the recipients to focus on directly helping those who were actively involved in serving the most vulnerable members of society. In late July of this year, she gave away almost $1.7 billion to 116 organizations focused racial equity, LGBT equity, gender equity, economic mobility, empathy, democracy, public health, global development, and climate change.
She wrote on Medium about the groups that received grants:
Some are filling basic needs: food banks, emergency relief funds, and support services for those most vulnerable. Others are addressing long-term systemic inequities that have been deepened by the crisis: debt relief, employment training, credit and financial services for under-resourced communities, education for historically marginalized and underserved people, civil rights advocacy groups, and legal defense funds that take on institutional discrimination.
To select these 384, the team sought suggestions and perspective from hundreds of field experts, funders, and non-profit leaders and volunteers with decades of experience. We leveraged this collective knowledge base in a collaboration that included hundreds of emails and phone interviews, and thousands of pages of data analysis on community needs, program outcomes, and each non-profit’s capacity to absorb and make effective use of funding. We looked at 6,490 organizations, and undertook deeper research into 822. We put 438 of these on hold for now due to insufficient evidence of impact, unproven management teams, or to allow for further inquiry about specific issues such as treatment of community members or employees. We won’t always learn about a concern inside an organization, but when we do, we’ll take extra time to evaluate. We’ll never eliminate every risk through our analysis, but we’ll eliminate many. Then we can select organizations to assist — and get out of their way.
We do this research and deeper diligence not only to identify organizations with high potential for impact, but also to pave the way for unsolicited and unexpected gifts given with full trust and no strings attached. Because our research is data-driven and rigorous, our giving process can be human and soft. Not only are non-profits chronically underfunded, they are also chronically diverted from their work by fundraising, and by burdensome reporting requirements that donors often place on them. These 384 carefully selected teams have dedicated their lives to helping others, working and volunteering and serving real people face-to-face at bedsides and tables, in prisons and courtrooms and classrooms, on streets and hospital wards and hotlines and frontlines of all types and sizes, day after day after day. They help by delivering vital services, and also through the profound encouragement felt each time a person is seen, valued, and trusted by another human being. This kind of encouragement has a special power when it comes from a stranger, and it works its magic on everyone. We shared each of our gift decisions with program leaders for the first time over the phone, and welcomed them to spend the funding on whatever they believe best serves their efforts. They were told that the entire commitment would be paid upfront and left unrestricted in order to provide them with maximum flexibility. The responses from people who took the calls often included personal stories and tears. These were non-profit veterans from all backgrounds and backstories, talking to us from cars and cabins and COVID-packed houses all over the country — a retired army general, the president of a tribal college recalling her first teaching job on her reservation, a loan fund founder sitting in the makeshift workspace between her washer and dryer from which she had launched her initiative years ago. Their stories and tears invariably made me and my teammates cry.
It is obvious that the tax code is not going to be changed any time soon. Trump and McConnell revised it to favor the 1%, and McConnell will fight to keep it skewed toward big donors and corporations.
In the meanwhile, I salute McKenzie Scott for singling out the worthiest organizations and giving money without strings. Unlike the Billionaire Boys and Girls Club (think Gates, Broad, the Waltons), she does not choose organizations that are doing her bidding. She funded organizations serving those in need and gave them unconditional grants.
Not everyone is impressed by her generosity:
Some point out that in a different America, Scott wouldn’t have billions of dollars to give away – instead, more of that wealth would be paid in taxes that could benefit all Americans, and in higher wages to Amazon employees who could use the money directly.
Anand Giridharadas, author of the book Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, said in a tweet, which has since been removed, that it was “union-busting and tax avoidance that made the fortune possible.”
As well as praising a billionaire for giving money to HBCUs, Giridharadas said rank-and-file Amazon workers should be praised for their contribution to the company’s success: “Let us salute some folks barely holding on, running up and down warehouse aisles, whose wages did this.”
But even critics of income inequality recognize that McKenzie Scott is far more generous than her fellow billionaires, most of whom signed “The Giving Pledge” (promising to give away most of their wealth) but are taking their time dispensing their vast riches. (Look at the pictures of billionaires on the website of The Giving Pledge. Think Scrooge. Think French Revolution. Liberté, Fraternite, Egalite.)
Chuck Collins, director of the Program on Inequality and the Common Good at the Institute for Policy Studies, wrote at CommonDreams that while Scott is a newcomer on the billionaire-giving scene, she is doing it better than others in her cohort.
“She still has a long way to go in her stated intention of giving away all the wealth. But she’s now made two bold moves, putting to shame the other 650 U.S. billionaires who haven’t figured out comparable ways to boldly share,” he said.
“During a pandemic when US billionaire wealth has increased $1 trillion since March, other billionaires should draw inspiration from her approach to move funds to urgent needs, to historically marginalized groups, to share decision-making with non-wealthy people, and to avoid warehousing funds in private legacy foundations.”
Our society has a long way to go to create an economy where everyone has a chance to live a decent life, find satisfying work, have access to good health care, good housing, good schools.