MacKenzie Scott’s Money Bombs Are Single Handedly Reshaping America

A Bloomberg News survey accounting for $4.3 billion in 375 grants to nonprofits reveals for the first time how the philanthropist is directing her charitable might.

One email about a $15 million gift, suspected of phishing, sat unopened for a month. Several others about a $20 million pledge went ignored by an assistant, who thought the nondescript sender was fake. The recipient of another memo, promising millions more, turned to their lawyer, who said it was likely a scam.

All of those big-fortune messages, and hundreds more like them, were not only legitimate, they came from the same source: a team working on behalf of MacKenzie Scott, fourth richest woman in the world — and, increasingly, the most powerful and mysterious force in philanthropy today.

With almost $8.6 billion in gifts announced in just 12 months, Scott has vaulted to the tippy top of philanthropic giving, outspending the behemoth Gates and Ford Foundations’ annual grants — combined. But, for someone who is single handedly reshaping nonprofits, Scott, who declined to comment for this story, has only given the public glimpses into the thinking driving her decisions. These days, she shares little more than the list of lucky organizations and an inspirational quote.

To get a better sense of which causes are benefiting from Scott’s coffers — and where she might turn her attention to next — Bloomberg categorized, by location and type, all 786 gifts she has given so far. We then tracked the money, using a survey and reporting, and found at least $4.3 billion distributed in 375 grants. The recipients of the remaining 411 haven’t disclosed the size of Scott’s gifts.

The groups that shared information are largely representative of the cross section of overall recipients. Education and arts and culture organizations were more likely to disclose the size of their gifts.

The data collected — the largest accounting of Scott’s giving to date — reveals that she’s focused on propping up needy individuals and the nonprofit industry itself through historic donations to organizations that didn’t see it coming.

More than $1.6 billion has gone to education nonprofits and colleges and universities, with historically Black institutions, two year colleges and Hispanic Serving Institutions fielding most of the contributions. Social assistance organizations, which feed, house and support those in need, like Goodwill and YMCA, got about $1 billion and another $1.2 billion went to philanthropy and grantmaking infrastructure nonprofits that focus on the business of fundraising, advocacy and philanthropy itself. At least two of those, the Bridgespan Group and Lever For Change, have worked directly with Scott on her giving.

The vast majority of her gifts went to groups based in the U.S., but some of those distribute funds globally.

For nearly 90% of organizations that responded to a Bloomberg survey, Scott’s gift was the largest they’ve ever received, with donations ranging from $750,000 to $60 million. “Transformational” was the word used over and over by recipients. “You dream about these things, right?,” said San Antonio College president Robert Vela, who found out about a $15 million gift in May after initially ignoring an email he’d thought was a scam for a month. “You don’t really think they’re going to happen.”

It’s hard to say whether higher education and philanthropic infrastructure will continue to be the work that she’s known for in the way the Gates Foundation has tackled global health or Jeff Bezos has made his charitable name with a $10 billion promise to fight climate change.

For one, she hasn’t been at it for that long. Scott only gained individual control over her fortune after her divorce from Bezos in 2019. Shortly after, she signed the Giving Pledge, promising to donate the majority of her wealth in her lifetime or will. At last count, she and her new husband, Seattle science teacher Dan Jewett, had $58 billion yet to give away. Her ex-husband, the second richest person in the world worth $191 billion, has yet to commit to that pledge.

One notable characteristic of Scott’s giving so far is the variability of her interests. Unburdened by expectations and a track record, Scott and her team have acted nimbly, changing the targets of their grants along with the news cycle. Just as things seem to be at their worst in one corner of society, MacKenzie Scott shows up, deus ex machina, with her money cannon.

In July 2020, following George Floyd’s murder, of the $1.7 billion Scott announced she’d given away, the biggest chunk — $587 million — went to racial equity organizations.

Five months later, as the pandemic recession dragged on, straining food banks that more and more Americans had begun to rely on, Scott made expansive gifts to groups like Meals on Wheels and Feeding America. “When the Mackenzie Scott gift came, it was a miracle,” said Eric Cooper, chief executive officer of the San Antonio Food Bank, which saw demand double to 120,000 people a week after the pandemic hit.

In her most recent round of giving, she gave to several Asian American and Pacific Islander-centric groups as hate crimes spiked across the U.S. “She’s working her way through all the different kinds of organizations,” said Elizabeth Dale, an associate professor of nonprofit leadership at Seattle University. “We might see her giving to environmental organizations in the next round.” (So far, climate focused nonprofits make up less than 1% of the pool of recipients.)

For nonprofits, which largely survive off much smaller donations, the guesswork can be frustrating.

“Her style of giving, which has emphasized that these gifts kind of come out of nowhere, manna from heaven, underscores that the grantees or potential grantees aren’t really in control of their own fate,” said Benjamin Soskis, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute’s Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy. The Urban Institute received a gift from Scott in her June round of giving.

Graciela Sanchez, director of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, which received a $1 million gift from Scott, said she and her team are always trying to make connections and get noticed by big donors. In the end, though, she’s mostly left crossing her fingers. “You just do the work ultimately and you hope somebody is watching it,” Sanchez said, adding that she’s already thinking about where to turn once the center burns through Scott’s donation. (Scott has given to some organizations more than once, but her team has told recipients they can’t request more funding, according to two recipients of gifts.)

Some of the roughly 1.5 million nonprofits in the U.S. that haven’t received a gift from Scott are asking, “Why not me?” Many of the organizations Scott has given to are small — half of survey respondents have fewer than 50 employees, excluding colleges and universities — and don’t often attract the attention of big name donors. Dozens have commented on Scott’s blog posts, hoping they might be next.

“It’s literally an act of utter desperation on our behalf,” said Scot Orban, human resource director at the Community Action Agency in Sioux City, Iowa, who appealed to the billionaire in the comments of her most recent Medium post — the only way he could find to get in touch with her. His organization usually fields gifts of, at most, a few thousand dollars. “In Iowa, it’s difficult for us to find large donors,” he said.

The mystery surrounding Scott and her team has caused issues for recipients. Palo Alto College president Robert Garza said his assistant thought several emails from the philanthropist’s team about a $20 million gift were fraudulent. (After reports of real scams, Scott has added a warning about impersonators in her bios on social media.)

“It didn’t have a phone number, it didn’t have a logo, it didn’t have an address,” Garza said of legitimate emails from Scott’s team. After a handful of ignored messages, Scott’s people finally got in contact with Garza through another email address, he said. The donation was the largest single gift of its kind in the college’s history. (Most schools selected by Scott have relatively small endowments.)

The fact that Scott does her giving as a private individual, as opposed to through a foundation, means that she can disclose as much or as little as she pleases about her team. Foundations like the Gateses’ have rigorous reporting requirements. The Gates Foundation also shares information on its website about its leadership and more than 1,700 employees scattered across the globe. Scott offers up little more than the list of grantees in her blog posts.

Not much is known of the team working on Scott’s behalf, either. She has said that her advisers have “key representation from historically marginalized race, gender, and sexual identity groups,” and that they pick grantees “through a rigorous process of research and analysis.” This lack of transparency isn’t just a practical barrier, but makes it hard to research her philanthropic power, said Soskis of the Urban Institute.

Nonprofits told Bloomberg they’ve worked with people from the philanthropic consultant Bridgespan and the National Philanthropic Trust, which bills itself as the largest national, independent donor advised fund sponsor. Both declined to comment for this story.

Notably absent from the process is Scott herself. None of the more than a dozen recipients Bloomberg spoke with said they ever interacted with or heard from her.

Her philanthropic counterparts, like Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates, on the other hand, are active public and private facing stewards of their giving. The most publicized giving Scott has done was a $40 million competition she ran in partnership with French Gates. Even Bezos, who hasn’t given away nearly as much as his ex-wife, has a more overt presence, sharing photos and videos of meetings with the beneficiaries of his gifts and students at his Bezos Academy preschools on social media.

Scott’s choice to share so little is the reason many recipients told Bloomberg they wouldn’t disclose the size of their gift. Some said they interpreted the language in their grant agreement to mean they couldn’t share how much they received. Many others worried that publicizing such an outsized grant would discourage others from supporting their causes.

“Our concern is that other funders will not prioritize funding for our organization assuming that our financial needs are taken care of,” the Oakland-based Greenlining Institute said, sharing that the gift was between $5 million and $10 million. Another organization, Sanku, didn’t share an amount at all, citing “concerns about donor perception.”

Still, only one organization out of the 270 that responded to a Bloomberg survey said funding decreased following Scott’s gift. To be sure, some received her grants just two months ago.

Another unusual aspect of Scott’s record-setting year of giving, is that her grants largely come without restrictions on how to use them. Many people who responded to the survey said their nonprofits didn’t know yet what to do with the gifts. Others, however, were taking advantage of the freedom to fund day-to-day expenses and upgrades—88 said they have plans to hire more staff and 62 are investing in technology.

“It definitely helped our mental health,” said Celia Turner, acting director of philanthropic partnerships at Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, which received a $4 million gift in the July 2020 round.

That seems to be just what Scott was aiming for.

“What do we think they might do with more cash on hand than they expected?” Scott asked in her June blog post. “Hire a few extra team members they know they can pay for the next five years. Buy chairs for them. Stop having to work every weekend. Get some sleep.”