MacKenzie Scott Is Criticized for Not Providing Details in Latest Round of Gifts
MacKenzie Scott, the billionaire who has attracted worldwide attention by giving away more than $8 billion, largely to small nonprofits and those that are often ignored by big philanthropy, said Wednesday she no longer plans to to publicize how much money she is giving to charity because she doesn’t want the focus to be on her. Scott’s decision has dismayed philanthropy scholars and nonprofit experts who had hoped she would become more transparent, not less, over time.
In a Medium post titled, “No Dollar Signs This Time”
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MacKenzie Scott, the billionaire who has attracted worldwide attention by giving away more than $8 billion, mostly to small nonprofits and those that are often ignored by big philanthropy, said Wednesday she no longer plans to publicize how much money she is giving to charity because she doesn’t want the focus to be on her. Scott’s decision has dismayed philanthropy scholars and nonprofit experts who had hoped she would become more transparent over time.
In a Medium post titled “No Dollar Signs This Time,” Scott writes that she has decided to stop naming the charities to which she is giving and the amounts of money she is donating. In the past, Scott offered lists of the groups she supported but left it up to the nonprofits to decide whether to disclose how much they received. Only about 25 percent of the recipient charities have chosen to reveal how much they got.
She wrote that she is leaving it up to the nonprofits to decide whether to say anything. She also said in her blog post that she wants the media to focus on the charities and their work rather than on her and the billions of dollars she is contributing. That approach has drawn tremendous criticism from nonprofit leaders and scholars who say the lack of transparency heightens concerns about the accountability of billionaire philanthropy.
Ben Soskis, a philanthropy scholar at the Urban Institute, tweeted a critical response to Scott’s decision. Scott responded to him on Twitter saying that she wonders “if [the] answer is in encouraging all to share about their giving, emphasizing that all forms play an important role from which everyone can learn and take inspiration.”
She also said in a tweet that her team was in the process of figuring out a way to publicly share the details of the first two years of her giving, including her most recent gifts, in a different forum than the blog posts she has been writing and that it would include data.
At least two beneficiaries — Global Citizen Year and Public Allies — have already announced that they are recipients of Scott’s latest round of giving.
Everyday Acts of Generosity
In her post, Scott muses on the definition of the word “philanthropy” and writes that the everyday acts of kindness and assistance that people provide each other and go unrecognized are just as much philanthropy as a multimillion gift from an uber-wealthy donor. Billionaire donors and their large gifts, Scott writes, should not attract more attention or take precedence over less flashy or more humble acts of generosity and should not overshadow the work of charity employees carrying out their groups’ missions.
“How much or how little money changes hands doesn’t make it philanthropy. Intention and effort make it philanthropy. If we acknowledge what it all has in common, there will be more of it,” Scott wrote. “It’s also why I’m not including here any amounts of money I’ve donated since my prior posts. I want to let each of these incredible teams speak for themselves first if they choose to, with the hope that when they do, media focuses on their contributions instead of mine.”
Scott has given away a total of more than $8 billion in unrestricted contributions to about 800 nonprofits since 2020 and has directed much of that money to overlooked nonprofits that help people of color, immigrants, and others who have been marginalized. She also earmarked more than $146 million for groups that bolster charities and foundations. Her ever-growing wealth, estimated at nearly $60 billion, makes it hard for the public to look away and even harder for the nonprofit world not to scrutinize her charitable moves.
Shifting the Spotlight
Scott’s three previous blog posts included the total amount she gave and then a list of all of the nonprofit beneficiaries that received the money. She did so in July and December 2020 and again in June of this year. Scott has always left it up to the nonprofits to decide whether to disclose how much they received.
That decision shows that she is “de-centering herself,” says Chuck Collins, an heir to the Oscar Mayer fortune who gave his inheritance to charity in 1986 and today leads the Program on Inequality and the Common Good at the Institute for Policy Studies. “She’s saying she wants to shift the spotlight to the recipients and let them publicize the gifts and have them be the stars. This was a really interesting way of shifting the spotlight, shifting the story, using her significant voice to kind of redefine philanthropy.”
Collins says that however much he admires Scott’s approach to giving, he believes she should be more transparent about how much she is contributing and where it is going. He says donors that have that much wealth and influence should embrace reporting, accountability, and transparency because they are getting a tax break.
“People who reduce their taxes by charitable giving should report in a public way because we’re all chipping in for her tax reduction,” Collins says.
Challenge for Charities
Scott’s latest decision to refrain from disclosing how much money she is giving may rankle many philanthropy observers, but her decision not to name beneficiaries is an even bigger problem for nonprofits, says Phil Buchanan, president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, which received $10 million from Scott in the round of gifts she announced in June.
Buchanan says he is perplexed by Scott’s decision to stop listing each recipient. That approach, coupled with the mystery surrounding how Scott and her advisers choose which groups to support, makes it harder for nonprofits that have not received anything from Scott to understand if they are among the types of groups that might interest her.
Buchanan says not only do nonprofits want to understand what donors like Scott are supporting and why but they also want to understand how they might capture the attention of such donors. Charities that want to attract Scott’s attention specifically are also frustrated by the lack of any process or application apparatus, such as the kind a foundation might have, for charities to apply for support from Scott, says Buchanan.
“There’s a fair number of nonprofits I speak to that have not been on the receiving end of these gifts but don’t understand why because they feel like their work is aligned with what they deduce to be the priorities and values of Mackenzie Scott,” Buchanan says. “For a donor whose giving is at that scale, my hope would be that from an effectiveness point of view and an accountability point of view, there would be more openness. My hope is that this is a blip and that the long-term trajectory can be one of more transparency rather than less.”
He says he is happy to see Scott responding to criticism through Twitter and is heartened she is signaling that she and her team are working to provide more information over the next year.
Giving Power to Nonprofits
Other nonprofit leaders are not worried about it. Abby Falik, whose group, Global Citizen Year, received $12 million from Scott in this latest round, says leaving it up to the charities aligns with the trust Scott places in the groups to which she gives.
“She is ceding more power and trust into the hands of the organization she’s choosing to support, and it allows her to be deferential to her advisers and the expertise of the organizations she works with but not solely accountable for everybody’s results, which nobody ever is anyway,” says Falik. “It is in any donor’s discretion to disclose a list of gifts or not, and there’s so much philanthropy that’s done anonymously. This is just a grantee-centric approach that feels like it’s in integrity with what she believes and what she’s set out to do.”
Global Citizen Year is using Scott’s gift to kick off its New Leaders Fund, a $50 million fundraising campaign to advance its work to prepare young people from diverse backgrounds to become strong 21st-century leaders. Falik says her organization publicized the gift as a way to let others know about the nonprofit’s efforts to raise money to expand its programs.
Jaime Ernesto Uzeta, who leads Public Allies, a social-justice and racial-equity nonprofit that recently received $10 million from Scott, says her approach has pros and cons. In some cases, knowing how much was given to a specific organization is helpful, but it might be counterproductive for other charities to publicize such a donation before they know how they plan to use the money. In his case, Public Allies had already launched its racial-equity campaign to attract unrestricted donations so announcing Scott’s gift helped his team further publicize the organization’s campaign.
Says Uzeta: “We’re trying to raise $75 million over three years, and so we want to be as transparent as possible and, of course, bringing attention to the local leaders who have been doing this work on the ground for so many years and not getting the attention or the resources they need to do it, our response was automatically to want to publicize it.”