Over the past four months, MacKenzie Scott has given more than $4 billion of her wealth to 384 organizations across the country, including food banks, debt relief programs, and legal defense funds. The donations are part of an effort from Scott, the ex-wife of Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, to give away at least half of her wealth, a commitment she first announced in May 2019, and an example, charity reform advocates say, of how billionaires should be donating money.
Scott’s recent philanthropy—which totals $4,158,500,000, according to an announcement she posted on Medium—was made mostly through unrestricted grants directly to frontline charities that are meeting the needs of low-income Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic. She gave to Feeding America member food banks, Meals on Wheels programs, YMCAs, pandemic relief funds for the state of New Jersey, to Navajo and Hopi families, and more.
This direct giving is an outlier from most billionaire charity, which often happens instead through private foundations, says Chuck Collins, director of the Charity Reform Initiative at the think tank Institute for Policy Studies. Those foundations are only required to pay out 5% of their assets a year, meaning trillions of dollars aren’t being moved to charities on the ground.
“MacKenzie Scott’s bold and direct giving puts to shame the billionaire class and their perpetual private foundations,” Collins said in a statement. “During a pandemic when U.S. 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.”
It’s not just the amount Scott gave away that’s notable, but the fact that she disseminated this money with the help of advisers, Collins notes, “that come from under-resourced communities, not the folks that typically sit on foundation boards.”
After her announcement in July that she had so far given away $1.7 billion to 116 organizations, Scott writes in her most recent post that she asked advisers to help her accelerate her 2020 giving “through immediate support to people suffering the economic effects of the [COVID-19] crisis.” By bringing those people to the table, Scott was able to find places to give that helped the most vulnerable people. The $40 million she gave to Morgan State University, for instance, more than doubled the school’s endowment.
Still, Scott is one of those billionaires who have seen their wealth increase during the pandemic. On March 12, when COVID-19 lockdowns began in the U.S., her net worth totaled $33.4 billion. Now, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, it’s $60.7 billion, making her the 18th-richest person in the world. In total, U.S. billionaire wealth has increased $1 trillion since March.
Scott does acknowledge this inequality in her Medium post, contrasting the economic losses for women, for people of color, and for people living in poverty with the increased wealth of billionaires. And she’s not the first to see her wealth increase even as she tries to give it away. This pattern has played out for other signatories of the Giving Pledge, a commitment by a group of billionaires to give away half their wealth before they die. Ten years after that pledge launched in 2010, the combined wealth of the 62 signatories nearly doubled, from $376 billion to $734 billion.
The solution to actually redistributing this wealth, according to Collins, lies in policy changes. He proposes an Emergency Charity Stimulus that would mandate a temporary doubling of private foundation payout from 5% to 10% for three years, and a similar 10% payout for donor-advised funds (which currently have no payout requirement). This would move $200 billion to frontline charities, without increasing taxes or adding to the national deficit.
On top of that money sitting in foundations, billionaires have made enough during the pandemic to pay for the next stimulus check—$3,000 to all Americans, without denting their pre-pandemic wealth. Scott still has a long way to go, Collins notes, when it comes to her goal of giving away half her wealth, especially as it keeps growing. Still, her giving should be an example. By giving away more than $4 billion in four months, she’s “putting to shame the other 650 U.S. billionaires,” Collins says, “who haven’t figured out comparable ways to share boldly.”